A Travellerspoint blog

My Life as an International Celebrity

This past Saturday I spent part of the late afternoon sitting at an outdoor cafe reading my book (for those of you who might be interested, I recommend "The Country Under My Skin" by Gioconda Belli, a former Sandanista Guerilla. I don't love her writing style, but it has been a fascinating read about the Sandanista revolution). Granada is an old colonial town about an hour from Managua. Known for its beautiful architecture and its lake filled with over 1000 small isletas, Granada is a bit of a haven for tourists and locals alike who are escaping for the day, weekend, or rest of their lives. Next door, there was a large group of tourists eating dinner. My best guess was that they were from Taiwan, based mainly on the fact that a large number of manufacturing plants here are Taiwanese owned, and they were the first Asians I had seen since arriving a month ago. Two couples got up and began taking pictures of the surrounding buildings, and at one point, one of the women began to approach me. I thought she was going to ask me to take their picture, but instead she sat down next to me, took my hand, and smiled while the man she was with took our picture. Then she got up and walked away - without saying anything. A few minutes later, her friend came and sat down next to me. At this point, I had my book in my hand, and she looked a bit perplexed when she saw my hand was full and she couldn't hold it - but she still turned and smiled for the camera - and then walked away. Now I understand when you're travelling in a foreign country and want to take pictures of the local people and cultures. And to some degree, I understand when you see foreigners in your own country, and its rare enough that you want to take their picture (which happened often when I was travelling in India). But I can't quite figure why, when visiting Central America, from Asia, you'd want to take a picture of a gringa tourist?? I'd like to think it was because I looked so great they couldn't pass up the opportunity - but to be perfectly honest, the water had been out that day in our house, and I hadn't even taken a shower. Strange.

Before heading to Granada for the weekend, I spent a day in Esteli. We went to visit a potential investment opportunity, Harinas de Maiz. There is a very traditional cookie in Nicaragua, called the rosquilla, which is made of cornmeal and is a specialty of the northern region of the company. Typically rosquilla makers spend the majority of their day grinding the corn and preparing the cornmeal for the following day's cookies. Its a very time and labor intensive process, which greatly slows down the production. Harinas de Maiz has figured out a way to produce the cornmeal (which has to be made in a very specific way so that the cookies turn out well) in bulk, and distribute it daily to the women who make the cookies. It was a very interesting meeting - though I'll have to say, the best part was afterwards when we went into town. I had read in my guidebook that Esteli was known for producing high quality custom made cowboy boots - so after lunch, we set out to find a store. The first store we struck out - the bootmaker wasn't there, and the woman who was wasn't all that excited to show us the boots they had in the store. But our second stop was a gold mine. We didn't have time to have a custom pair made, but after much searching the owner was able to find a pair that I liked in a size that was big enough for my gringa feet. I am very happy (even if it is too hot to wear them here!).NicaraguaBoots.jpg

Today I spent the afternoon visiting the programs of the Fabretto Children's Foundation. I first visited Fabretto when I came to Nicaragua five years ago, and have since helped them out with a little bit of fundraising. Fabretto is working to break the cycle of poverty in Nicaragua by providing educational programs for approxmiately 5000 children. In the Nicaraguan public system, kids only receive a half a day of formal schooling. Fabretto works to fill this vacuum by providing programs for the rest of the day - with a main focus on teaching vocational education to help ensure that the children can eventually find work, and won't end up on the streets. The amount of work they are able to do with limited resources is amazing, and I was impressed to see how they've grown in the five years since I was last here. They have developed a series of programs and small businesses which provide training opportunities for students, as well as income to support their programs. One of the most succesful is a school garden program where the kids learn to raise fruits and vegetables that are then used in the lunchroom, and also sold. We were joined on our tour today by a North American/Nicaraguan couple who own several high end coffee shops in Managua, and are hoping to work with Fabretto to produce some of the ingredients they need in order to expand their menu. If you're interested in learning more about Fabretto, you can visit: http://www.fabretto.org/ourwork.htm

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It is hard to believe that our time here is almost halfway over, and I'm starting to wonder how I'm going to get all of my projects finished before it is time to leave. But, nevertheless, it continues to be a great learning experience.

Posted by jme75 20:05 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Sandboarding on the Cerro Negro Volcano

So this week, we moved on from roaches - to Beattles (as in the musical group) when we went to see the National Orchestra's annual Beattles review. Musicians from across Nicaragua joined a 12 piece jazz band and members of the national choir to pay tribute to the band. It was also an opportunity for us to see the famous Ruben Dario theater, which was one of the few buildings that survived the 1972 earthquake which basically leveled the city of Managua (which at the time was one of the most advanced in Latin America). I'll have to say I was a bit skeptical about the concert at first - but there is a certain charm to hearing Eleanor Rigby played on a cello!

Throughout the week, our projects continued to move along, and I'm finally getting a handle on how to quantify and measure the social impact of Agora's work, and the blended value of our investments. But all work and no play would make for a very dull summer, so come Friday we were off again. This weekend we went with our work colleague Terioska to her hometown of Leon. An hour outside of Managua, Leon is colonial town which is home to seven universities, so it has a very young and fun atmosphere.

First on our to do list Saturday morning was a hike up the Cerro Negro volcano to try sandboarding (which is just like snowboarding, but on sand, or really in this case, on small volcanic rocks). The hike up was a bit steep, especially carrying the boards - but the views were breathtaking. Cerro Negro is an active volcano which last erupted in 2000. According to our guide, it usually erupts every seven years, and so is overdue. As we started the climb - he told us not to worry if we felt movement, that it was normal - and to be honest, I'm still not sure if he was kidding or not.

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At the top we were able to see down into the still smoking crater (no visible lava unfortunately) and stick our hands into the hot layer of rock just underneath the surface. Then after a quick lesson on how to get down the mountain, we were off. There were only two sandboards, and four of us - so two in our group were using wooden sleds instead. In my case though, I was strapped by my ankles to the board. I can't say that I really mastered the sport - I spent more time on my butt than on my feet, and I think I will be finding small pieces of volcanic rock in places where the sun doesn't shine for a while - but I made it down in one piece. The sport has its disadvantages (there are no lifts, as one friend already pointed out) - but it was definitely fun to try. And, because words don't quite describe the experience - I put together my first video! You can check it out here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqp59ZAZqBY

Sunday morning Terioska took us to eat a typical Nicaraguan dish called "chancho con yuca." Sold in stands on the street, the dish consists of marinated pork served on top of pieces of yuca and wrapped up in banana leaves. It was delicious!

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We spent the morning on the farm of Terioska's friend, Alma Virginia. It turns out that my roommate Camila has a thing for cows (who knew?!), so Alma's dad introduced us to his herd. We got the chance to meet this little guy, who's mother died in labor a few weeks before. For the time being they are keeping him in a separate pen and bottle feeding him. However, they are waiting for one of the other cows to give birth in a few days - at which time they will cover him in her urine, and put him with the new calf. The hope is that she will smell her scent on him and believe that he is hers, and thus begin to raise him.

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Finally, in case we hadn't seen (or eaten) enough already - Terioska and Alma took us for an amazing fish lunch at the beach. It was a picture perfect day!

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Posted by jme75 20:59 Comments (0)

Everything is actually NOT bigger in Texas

Everything is bigger in Texas - as a proud Texan, that is what I have always believed. Last week however, I have learned that this is not necessarily true. I learned this important lesson from a cockroach when one morning we came face to face in my shower. It was, without a doubt, the biggest roach I've ever seen - but it was no match for the bottom of my flip flop. Revenge was sweet however for the Blatteria family (the scientific classification of the cockroach species, in case you weren't sure) later that week, when I stumbled into the bathroom half asleep, and barefoot - only to watch helplessly as another roach scurried across my floor. I like to think I'm fairly tough - but not tough enough to step on a roach with my barefoot! Still, I'm coming out ahead in the ongoing battle - so far the score is Jenny 5, Cockroaches 1. Hopefully this won't end like Davidson's run in this year's NCAA - because in the end, we all know, I am the underdog - and my cinderalla story may not last for long.

So maybe about this time my more faithful readers are thinking to themselves - wow, this would be good time to send Jenny a letter, or a nice care package from the states. But see, here is where you would run into a bit of trouble, because the streets of Managua, literally, have no names (and may in fact be the inspiration for the well known U2 song). It is yet another wonder of Nicaraguan infrastructure. So the address of the house where we are living this summer is: "From the Enecal office, 1 and 1/2 blocks "arriba" (that means east, as in where the sun comes up), white fence, #74". If we get in a taxi and that doesn't work, we can also try "From the Vicky (which is a restaurant that actually no longer exists, but everyone seems to know), two blocks "abajo" (as in west, where the sun goes down), half a block towards the lake (north), 1 and 1/2 blocks arriba". Amazingly, the system seems to work, and everyone finds their way to where they need to go one way or another - but you're off the hook for the care package.

The good thing about Managua is that it is only about two and a half hours from San Juan del Sur - a great little beach town where we spent the weekend. Thanks to Daniel G.'s recommendation, we spent Saturday night in a lovely little inn called La Posada Azul (www.laposadaazul.com, for anyone planning a surf trip) - where we enjoyed the pool, the AC, and the hot showers. There was not a roach in sight - but there were a few caged birds by the pool that would whistle every time you walked by. This was very reassuring for someone who hadn't been in a bathing suit in a long while, and was a bit worried about blinding someone with her glowing white skin. You gotta take what you can get - even if its from a bird.

While we were there, I got the chance to go diving again. I'll have to say, the diving here, at least on this coast - leaves something to be desired - the visibility was pretty poor, and the surge about wiped me out. But, the boat ride alone made it worth it because the coastline was so amazing - so much so that I'm sharing this not very flattering picture of myself (post two dives) - so you can see how pretty it was.

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The rest of the weekend was equally pituresque (though this isn't actually our hotel, but the ritzy resort where we went for lunch) - without the windblown hair and the sexy wet suit!

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This week has gotten off to quite the start, with a twelve hour work day that is becoming the norm. In addition to my main projects, I had my first consulting session today with an entrepreneur who eventually hopes to apply for funding from Agora. She has started a small business selling specialized Nicaraguan sweets, and now has the opportunity to potentially sell them through Wal-Mart (which owns most of the big grocery stores here). I'll be working with her over the next few weeks to guide her through writing a new business and expansion plan - which makes me wish I had actually learned something in my operations class this year! Nevertheless, it should be a good learning process (for both of us), and a good excuse to try the sweets.

(Note: I just reread through this post and found and corrected a bunch of typos - but for those of you who just recently started reading my blog, I thought I should reiterate my disclaimor in my original post that I make no apologies for spelling and grammatical errors made on the road!)

Posted by jme75 20:32 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Real World Managua, Episode I

Luckily, my first week in Managua has not been at all like the drama filled Real World reality show. I am interning here for the summer with an organization called Agora Partnerships (www.agorapartnerships.org) which works with small and medium business entrepreneurs to help them secure financing and grow their businesses. There are a lot of ways to explain the work that we do, but I thought one of the founders summed it up well during our training when he said "its not about giving the man a fish, or teaching him to fish. Its about showing the man how to sell the fish for the most money possible." I will be working with Agora to help them implement systems to better measure the social impact of their financial investments, as well as advising some of the entrepreneurs that are currently in the pipeline. It's a great way for me to combine some of my past philanthropic experience with what I'm learning in business school, and I'm really excited about the opportunity.

There are several other interns, and we all share a house - which could have made for a really interesting summer - but luckily, so far, we're all getting along! At the moment, there are only three of us, myself, Camila and Liliana - so we have plenty of room in the three bedroom house. We are hoping that our fourth roommate, Roque, will arrive soon from Spain, where he unfortunately has been dealing with a family emergency. There is also another intern, Sarah, who is working with us, but living with a host family.

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The house is nice, though minimally furnished - and missing one key thing - air conditioning!! Its pretty hot and humid in Managua - so we're definitely feeling the heat. To some degree this is counter balanced by a lack of hot water as well, since usually the only way to really cool off is with a cold shower. Luckily the office has AC, though I'm convinced that much like companies that offer food and other services on site in order to encourage employees to stay at the office longer, that Agora strategically picked a house for us without AC so we'll be more inclined to work long hours!

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Managua is a strange place. Despite being the capital city and where a fifth of the population lives, its more like a town than a big city. The water has gone out a few times since we arrived. Luckily, it comes back after a few hours, but in the meantime our only shower option is a bucket of cold water behind the house. So far we haven't had any problems with electricity - but apparantly that comes and goes as well. Infrastructure is severly lacking, mainly due to years of political instability and corruption.

Our first week of work was pretty intense - we had three days of orientation, and my head is still spinning from all of the information. On Wednesday we spent the morning visiting the different companies that Agora has invested in to date. The largerst investment is Calzado Reyes, a shoe factory that is using Agora's investment to modernize their factory. They also made a pair of custom shoes for Agora's co-founder Ben Powell, who was in town for the week (he's based in DC) to welcome us. Ben is a great storyteller, and I'm sure the shoes will factor into his upcoming pitches to potential investors for the Agora Venture Fund.

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We also visitied Fabrica Pochi, a company that produces small bags of purfied water and frozen treats (kind of like Frosty Pops!) that are then sold by vendors on the streets. They are using their investment to buy new equipment so that they can begin to bottle and sell juice and water as well.

We were joined on the tour by Christian, who was visiting from Bamboo Finance (www.bamboofinance.org). Based out of Geneva, Bamboo Finance is a new fund that pools capital from private investors and helps channel these resources to sustainable enterprises capable of offering a blended return (financial, social and environmental). Their mission is very much in line with Agora's, and Christian was in town to discuss a potential investment in the Agora Venture Fund. (and yes, it has occurred to me that Geneva might not be a bad place to live and work for a few years after school . . .). He's getting a pair of shoes too.

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We hope to spend most of our weekends while we are here travelling, but this weekend we were here for most of the time. Everyone from the office went out to dinner to celebrate Liliana's birthday, and then all of the interns went with Ricardo, Agora's other cofounder who is based in Managua, to a fundraising event and a special screening of the new Sex and the City movie. The next night our co-worker took us out to the "in" disco in town. It turned out to be a slow night because Enrique Iglesias was giving a concert on the other side of town, but fun to see nonetheless. And, I reconfirmed what many of you already know - which is that I have an amazing ability to attract the drunkest, most ridiculous man in the bar, no matter what country I'm in. (Some of you who were in Japan with me may remember my Australian friend who followed me through the streets of Kyoto in hopes that I would come back to Australia with him and settle down on his sheep farm). This time it was a fifty year old Nicaraguan man who followed me everywhere I went until finally a bouncer intervened. Its a very special talent!

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Finally, we ended the weekend with my mom and her friend Kathleen who are in town for a few days. All in all, its been a great start to the summer. I think it is going to be a really great learning experience, and hopefully a lot of fun as well!

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Posted by jme75 15:55 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Be Careful What Buttons You Push

Three weeks have passed since I returned home from my whirlwind tour of Japan, and I have finally recovered enough (and caught up with my school work) to update my blog. Every year various clubs of the business school plan Spring Break treks around the world, and I was fortunate enough to join the Japanese Business Association for their annual trek. My four classmates who planned the trip did a phenomenal job - and it was a great intro to Japan. Travelling with 158 classmates was definitely an interesting experience (three planes, four buses, one bullet train and remarkably nobody left behind). We covered a lot of ground - but here are some of the highlights.

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As anyone who has travelled in Japan knows - Japanese toilets are pretty cool. They come with an amazing amount of buttons and options - including seat warmers and musical accompaniment. The first bathroom I encountered, in the Tokyo airport, also had a variety of buttons you pushed to open and close the door. As someone with a very small bladder, I was in Heaven. On day two, I found myself in an equally fancy restroom outside of the Imperial Palace. I also found a very convenient, brightly lit green button that was used to flush the toilet. Or so I thought. Only after I pushed it did I notice the small sign underneath which said, in English, "emergency". By that time I had set off the alarm - and not only was a siren going off, but there was also a bright green light flashing to help the bathroom attendant identify exactly which stall held a person in distress. So while still trying to pull up my jeans, I was also trying to explain, in Japanese (which, incidentally, I don't speak), to the attendant who was now pounding on the door, that I was not in fact in distress. The trip was off to quite a start.

Our first day we toured many prominent Tokyo landmarks. We also learned that Japanese are as crazy about their pets as we are. And, my friend Vikram got recruited to perform in a stand-up comedy show (apparently he's funnier in languages he doesn't speak).

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Later that day a group of us went see the Tokyo Giants game. Not much of a sports fan, I was definitely there for the cultural experience (and to find the Japanese equivalent of beer and hotdogs). For the most part, Japanese baseball games are fairly similar to US games, with a few differences. First of all, you only cheer (or make noise at all) when your team is up to bat - but when you do, it is no ordinary cheering. It is a coordinated group effort of your entire half of the stadium - most of who are wearing your team color and chanting along to constantly a changing variety of cheers. Second, there are cheerleaders (which many think is a welcome addition to the sport). Finally, they do serve beer and hotdogs - but they also serve much more interesting things - like little fried dough balls with pieces of octopus inside.

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Before leaving Tokyo, we also made a trip (at 4 in the morning) to the Tsukiji first market. We watched as giant tuna were auctioned off for destinations around the world. And then we had tuna for breakfast. The vegetarians in the group weren't quite able to understand how we could watch as the fish had their heads cut off - and then turn around and eat sushi. But I'll have to say, it was probably the best sushi I've ever had!

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Next up, we made a trip to the Toyota factory (after all, this was a business school trip!). It was really interesting to tour the factory and see the production process up close. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take cameras in. (On a side note, by this point in the trip, my camera had also broken, so the rest of these photos were actually taken by friends on the trip. Luckily, I had 158 pictures of each thing we saw to choose from.) That night we stayed at a traditional onsen. We bathed in the hot springs (another way to bond with your classmates. . .), dressed in kimonos, and slept on mats on the floor. I really liked my kimono.

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Then we were off to Kyoto - one of the most beautiful cities I've ever been to. Don't get me wrong, Tokyo is an amazing city. But it was also virtually destroyed in the wars, so everything is new and modern. Kyoto by contrast still maintains much of the traditional and historical architecture. On our first day, we went to visit the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, which is set upon a hillside overlooking Kyoto. Just below the main hall is the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, which is known for having therapeutic properties. We understood from our tour guide that the three streams of water represented llongevity, good studies, and love. My friend Joe decided to go for longevity (we've promised not to tell his girlfriend) and I opted for love (see mom, I try!). However, I just looked the temple up online, and according to Wikipedia there is not love a stream. So I may still be single, but I should be getting all A's this semester or living for a very long time!

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On our one free day we ventured to the outskirts of the city to the bamboo forest. It was amazing - straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which yes, I realize, was set in China, not Japan). We also stalked a few geisha and had lunch in a traditional tea house.

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Finally, our last stop was in Osaka - the highlight of which was a Sumo tournament!! It took a long time to decipher the sport and figure out how everything worked - but I'm proud to say that I won 200 yen (about $2) by wagering bets on the final two winning wrestlers. I'm hoping to find a sumo bookie in New York.

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Our last night we had a great send off dinner for all 159 of us (plus one who snuck on the trip, but that's another story entirely. . .). Akira, one of our leaders, made regular announcements to remind us that the "all you can drink" portion of the dinner would end promptly at 9:45. But hey - we're business students - we knew how to get the most for our money! Amazingly, no one missed the flight the next day either (but I don't think any of us will be drinking sake again for a while).

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All in all, it was a great trip. I don't think I'd ever travel with 158 other people again, but I will definitely go back to Japan. Next up - summer in Nicaragua! But first I have to work on getting those A's this semester. . .

Posted by jme75 20:32 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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