Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting Around and Out of Bluefields

Noted earlier: at least 90% of the vehicles on the roads of Bluefields are taxis and (unlike many U.S. cities) clearly marked. You do not gaze and wonder at taxis here. Driving a taxi in Bluefields does not preclude you from having gigantic speakers mounted in your trunk, tricked-out grills, or comic horns. Driving a taxi in Bluefields, if anything, encourages these things.

The currency unit in Nicaragua is the cordoba, with the exchange rate hovering close to 20 cords per US$1. Before ten o’clock, taxis will take you basically anywhere pavement exists in Bluefields (not as comforting as it sounds) for a fixed price of 10 cords. After 10 PM, the price bumps up to fifteen. This is per person, regardless of your destination, and regardless of how many people you can fit into the front, back, and stereo-filled trunk.

Your time as a clown-car celebrity means nothing here. Ten cords.

More often than not, you’re better off walking. The bE casa seems to be on the outskirts of the central population bubble, but it’s only a fifteen minute walk into the shopping and market areas. Everyone will look at your goofy pale skin, but only because it looks goofy and pale. You’ll see endless little shops where you could purchase veggies, eggs, meats, and sodas. But you won’t, because it’s very hard to see inside and little dark stores selling meat of questionable origins is of some concern (sorry, kids). At night, with the shelves lit, the pulperias of Bluefields appear more inviting.

Other options: bike (both kinds), mud-spattered horse, crowded pickup.

There are roads leading outside the city limits, or appearing to, but there’s nothing nearby. Everywhere one would go is reached either by panga, bigger boat, or plane. We’d planned to spend New Year’s Eve by traveling to the Corn Islands, heading out by boat this morning, but no boats are allowed to dock there this week. The wind’s up. Planes are typically too expensive (~$100 apiece for round-trip, 20-minute flights) for four days.

BUT. We now have other plans, including a Creole cooking class.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: "Alex Quiere un Dinosaurio"

Certain authors feel a strong urgency to pepper their writing with splashes of foreign languages, to give it that je-ne-sais-quoi feeling of “I’m saying this thing, it’s very clever – oh, but you don’t understand?” Other authors, in the vein of Madison Smartt Bell (whose middle name is “almost smart”), enjoy bouncing their words back and forth between languages like a manic, polyglot pinball machine. These people, at their core, are empty and mean. The writers of “Alex Quiere un Dinosaurio,” a book I found on the bE bookshelf and that contains only Spanish, take this evil one step further.

Let’s assess the basic plot trajectory, starting at the ground floor: Alex wants a dinosaur. The character’s basic needs and vulnerability have been laid out from the beginning: check. His saxophone-playing grandfather – wait for it – gets him a dinosaur. Alex and his grandfather then feed the dinosaur (sorry, “dinosaurio”), amuse him, walk him, take him to school, and have him assault truckers. They run off to pursue a life of violent crime, loose women, and dinosaurio-sized prescription meds.

I flipped ahead a bit. This is the authors’ fault.

The narrative employs a popular technique known as “magical realism,” in which readers are compelled to believe something impossible by authors who woke up that morning wearing their fancy pants. The title mentions dinosaurs, Alex wants a dinosaur and nothing else, and the grandfather wants to get him a dinosaur – either there are dinosaurs when we turn the page, or the story ends. We bend over and take it, narratively speaking. The “Dino-tienda” where they purchase Fred is heavily detailed (the degree to which you describe flying elephants increases their likelihood, a famous fancy-pants owner once said). The other characters believe in and interact with and grow to loathe Alex’s dinosaur, so why shouldn’t you?

Move over, Gabriel García Márquez.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, just when you think twenty-some pages were too many – but you’re still totally down with dinosaurs existing and all, you’re with him, you’re packing your bags for the Dino-tienda and ready to go – what happens? You turn the last page to see the grandfather give Alex a white bunny. The little prick was asleep.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Influencing an Affluence of Effluence?

Core elements of childhood drawings: a bright, smiling, spherical sun aloft in the corner. Softly lapping waves fill the foreground. Basic one-story constructions, featuring jagged lines and mismatched housing elements, suggesting scrap metal and driftwood. Fencing optional. The sky full of kites. Animals and humans together, smiling, standing side-by-side.

There’s a sense of utilitarianism and ease-of-use permeating most aspects of Kahkabila, from housing construction to the casual greeting (“alright”) to work schedules dependent upon currents and wind. There’s something very idyllic about a community that, while tremendously poor, disconnected, and unsuccessfully developed (and conscious of all these things), manages, on the whole, to keep disarmingly high spirits. Close families. Minimal crime.

People own the cows (and chickens, pigs, roosters, monkeys, dogs, cats, goats…), but very few own enough to warrant penning them off. Despite efforts to keep them clean, wells become contaminated due to various forms of runoff, with the effects exacerbated during the dry season. Visitors are obliged to bring their own water filters and chlorine tablets. Water-borne illnesses are a major health concern here, especially with children.

In those drawings, everyone forgets about the poop.

Friday, December 26, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a Wet Christmas

Most of the bE volunteers leave Bluefields over the holiday, either to return home or visit different sections of Latin America. One contingency headed out to do a turbine replacement at a Costa Rican eco-lodge. Others left for Brazil, Panama, the U.S., France. Meanwhile, Ali, Ken, and Luic remained in Bluefields to hold down the fort, bake cookies, and feed the mosquitos.

In order to properly celebrate the holidays in Bluefields, all you need are a couple cans of bright house paint, some twinkle lights, a few over-the-top decorations (easily purchased downtown), and a handful of firecrackers. Apply liberally. Repeat as needed. You will have plenty of time to rest afterwards, during one of the holiday's thirty-seven traditional meals.

Vida Luz, a close friend of bE, invited us to celebrate Christmas Eve with her family, which at least one of us (hint: it wasn't Ali or Luic) was mildly concerned about due to his linguistic-related failings. We were expecting a quiet evening that would later be filled out by a party happening at Hotel Anabas. Following a filling meal of roasted meats and salads and beer at the home of Vida Luz’s sister, Argentina, we headed into town to their mom’s house to meet and visit with twenty additional family members.

Their second-story home overlooks a busy street in downtown Bluefields, with a spacious patio, fresh paint, and a light-up Santa that Luic helped fix (another bE success story). At eleven, Secret Santa activities began and, for some kind reason, we received gifts. At midnight we headed down to the street to set off fireworks that lit up both the sky and the feet of anyone who wasn't paying attention (never, ever turn your back during those first few minutes of Christmas). Fireworks were followed by another meal.

At no point during the evening did Ken accidentally ask to borrow a pig.

Christmas itself was mellower, waking up late and listening to Christmas music online (Luic hinted that the only French Christmas music occurs in churches). After a traditional Nica lunch of noodles and vegetables, we attempted festive-ness with tortilla Española, honey-glazed carrots, salad, and rum punch ( ½ a pineapple, ¼ a watermelon, two oranges, and rum). Pineapple-upside-down cake and chocolate chip cookies for desert, joined by one of the bE house guards (Victor). While our families up north were looking out onto a thick covering of snow, here it was 80+ degrees and pouring rain. In the waning hours of our very traditional holiday, Luic worked on a final report for bE while Ali and Ken watched Kill Bill Volume 2.

A belated and confused Feliz Navidad from Nica!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December Update, or Give the Gift of blueEnergy!

The latest turbine installation in Kahkabila marked blueEnergy’s first remote health clinic energy system, providing electricity for a vaccine storage fridge, an asthma-treating respiratory device, and evening lighting for the resident physician. Members of the bE team also held a week-long training and maintenance seminar for the local energy commission, along with installing electrical wiring to power the community’s only primary school. 

In Bluefields, bE recently completed a solar panel system installation at the Bluefields campus of the National Technical Institute (IPCC-INATEC), our partnering technical school that bE is helping to reinvent as a regional center for renewable energy and community development.

Most volunteer programs don’t pay their volunteers anything. In addition to not getting paid, volunteers with bE also contribute monthly payments to offset their living expenses. We also sleep in hammocks, we share bathrooms with gigantic face-gnawing spiders (ok, so maybe not face-gnawing, but we’re not about to find out), and generally encourage low overhead expenses through mild amounts of suffering. Donations are tax-deductible and heavily leveraged with our corporate sponsors.

A little goes a long way down here (average incomes for technical positions in Bluefields are about US$100 per month), and the Nicaraguan postal system has a spotless record of losing every single incoming package. So, instead of trying to bubblewrap that fruitcake or fresh bottle of IPA, please consider making a donation to blueEnergy. Even $25 or $50 can be immensely helpful in moving bE forward with upcoming water filtration projects and community outreach activities.  It takes about two minutes.

There’s a link on the left side to bE's FirstGiving account, or click here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good Night, and Good Luck Sleeping

Constantly: Taxis and their attendant cacophony at all hours: notifying and insistent honks, tires on pitted concrete, wooden speakers in trunks, 50 Cent and Feliz Navidad. Birds that sound (follow us on this one) like Goofy when he’s skiing and falls of a cliff. Birds that sound like birds. Barking, baying, and rooster choruses that make earplugs purely ornamental. Backfiring motorcycles. Water overflowing somewhere onto something, always. Horses and horse-sized pigs being ushered down the street.

Often: High-pitched gecko chirps. Dog fights. The shrimp guy.

This morning: Firecrackers at 5:30, crackling at half-minute intervals, for fifteen minutes. Then nothing for two minutes. Then a parade.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Amenities of Casa bE

The bE house is located near the southwest edge of paved Bluefields and across the street from Dr. Bacon, who also happens to be the mayor of Bluefields. But it doesn’t look like we live across the street from a mayor, and someone might be pulling our leg about this.

The main bE house has administrative offices, a kitchen staffed every day but Sunday, a concrete patio with an all-purpose ping pong table, and six simple bedrooms. There are currently eighteen bE volunteers, and three protocol houses down the street provide additional sleeping quarters. Most actual work occurs further down the street at the local technical school, INATEC, which has developed a curriculum and technical workforce around the development and manufacturing of the bE systems. From a bar called La Loma, one can see three bE turbines turning high above the campus.

Things tend to be slightly more organized and pleasant here than one might expect. The other volunteers tend to be around our age and generally cooler than us, so it’s a good time. The local staff takes care of lunch during the week, provides laundry and cleaning services, and orders all the food for the house. Water runs through a well and rain catch and do-it-yourself plumbing (there are ceramic water filters and chlorine drops). The laundry and showering schedule, like pretty much everything else along the Nicaraguan coast, is heavily dependent upon the weather.

If the coconut bread in the container is out, check the freezer. Don’t expect any warm showers (you probably won’t want one). Pick an empty mattress, string up your mosquito net, and make yourself at home.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Occasional Pets of Bluefields

Four dogs currently serve as guardians and general mud-footed deviants of the bE house: Cooky, Flipper, Suzie, and the unnamed black one. The computer printers have identical names and are labeled, which is the only reason we have any guesses at the spelling. We expect all of the dogs to be named and properly accounted for once a fourth printer arrives.

Both Flipper and Suzie sleep in blue buckets or on tables just outside the main house. They are energetic protectors of the house (even from people friendly to bE), and for this are fed comparatively well with chicken scraps and rice. No one knows where the black one sleeps. Cooky, already quite old and bearing a striking resemblance to Snoop Dogg (apologies for lack of a picture), was recently hit by a car and removed next door to be cared for. When we see her, all she does is shake and stick her tongue out with her eyes closed. Despite diligent efforts at fence patching, Suzie follows the bE crew down the street to work each morning. Her sense of adventure is greater than her obvious fears of traffic and neighborhood dogs.

Pets aren’t really the same here, despite the fact that everyone seems to have two or more dogs and cats and parrots (and monkeys and songbirds) holding down their porch. Most animals we see outside the bE house are malnourished, flea-bitten, and bruised or beaten or hairless in spots. They are not fawned over, or fed chicken scraps. They are anything but adorable. Population control is dependent upon natural cycles of life and death.

Walking to work on Friday, we passed a truck with its bed full of animal carcasses and a long red puddle trailing down the street. A man in rubber boots stood over them with a hose, pushing liquids and runoff onto the street. We assured each other they were cows.

Friday, December 19, 2008


One-and-a-half hours north of Bluefields by panga (assuming a good-sized engine and few passengers), through lagoons and inlets and narrow riverways winding through jungle, past a sunken, rusted-out, and seemingly misplaced freighter, across Pearl Lagoon, is the small fishing community of Kahkabila. Predominantly Creole and Miskitu (the latter pronounced like the insect), Kahkabila consists of about fifty or sixty houses spaced inside a square mile of cleared land, palm trees, and dirt paths near the water.

Coconuts and bread fruit fall freely, cows and roosters and dogs move about uninhibited, and the only fencing one will see surrounds the few government-sponsored constructions (two schools, and a small health center). Monthly household incomes range between 500 to 5,000 cords, or about US $25-250, depending upon the lobsters. Prominent concerns are water quality, nutrition, malaria (a few recent cases), and education. Although a few families have diesel generators for basic lighting, radios, cooking, etc., the only electricity for most comes from the two bE hybrid systems (currently powering the health center, schools, and cell phone recharging). Formal education doesn't go beyond grade six. 

People are, on the whole, kind and happy here.

Our central role within bE will relate to the two system installations in Kahkabila.  The current plan is for us to reside in the community for about two months starting in late January or early February, after the holiday passes and there’s adequate time to properly research and organize the visit.  We completed an initial four-day visit shortly after we arrived in Nicaragua in early December, during which we helped finish installing the power lines to the primary school and participated in an operator training course regarding turbine and battery maintenance.  Even with the chiggers and bucket showers eagerly awaiting our return, we can’t wait to go back.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

En La Finca

Our first Sunday in Bluefields began with a taxi ride to where the pavement ends. From there, a dirt road winds up a slight hill, past windblown shacks, a burning cliff of garbage, and partially cleared forests where individuals are staking out claims with makeshift fencing and started foundations. Local government officials, we were told, recently indicated that nothing would be done about squatters in this region, resulting in the recent influx of activity. Beyond this: a state-of-the-art cattle operation (shining, spotless, no cattle), an unattended horse waiting for its owner to return from the bush with armfuls of chopped wood, and, past a dry well, the road to la finca.

La finca simply means “the farm.” There are many farms, but this is the familiar one. The owner’s family has close ties with blueEnergy. Following a quick hike up to a main building (staffed solely by the three children above and below, their parents at market), the eight of us had a leisurely lunch beside the remnants of a dismantled lookout post, before heading down into the jungle, GPS equipment in tow, in search of long-lost fence posts.

Jungle are not conducive to clumsy people. There are streams that can only be crossed through the clever use of tree limbs and by reinventing yourself as a tripod. There are monkeys that express loud, whooping umbrage at your presence. There are bullet ant parades. There are memories of clear-cut national forests. Two machetes upfront.

You're obliged to fall at least once, as a show of good faith.  

When it’s over, when a rusty spoke of metal attached to barbed wire emerges at the bottom of a hill, then fencing and cleared space, it will seem anticlimactic. It will seem, even though a one-hour hike turned into four, premature. Machetes will be slid away too soon. Eventually, dirt paths, a burning cliff with foraging animals, and then pavement resume. The monkey will still be whooping, distantly, but with less feeling.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why blueEnergy

blueEnergy (bE) is a non-governmental organization (NGO), a not-for-profit entity with the mission of providing sustainable rural development through the installation and long-term support of hybrid renewable energy systems: wind turbines and solar PV panels coupled to battery banks, which normalize power availability. bE also supports social and economic development as communities evolve as a result of this electricity.

The current focus of bE’s efforts are remote communities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua: the poorest regions of the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. These communities will serve as benchmarks and dynamic learning environments to move forward and better inform broader plans to expand to other locations in Nicaragua, central America, and throughout Africa. A huge percentage of people in developing countries lack basic electricity access, due to inaccessibility or financial infeasibility of expanding an existing electrical grid, and sustainable, renewable energy sources can provide much needed support for improved heath care, education, access to clean water, and economic opportunities such as micro-enterprises in fishing, manufacturing, and food production.

The turbines and PV panel supports are manufactured in coalition with a Bluefields-based technical school, using locally sourced materials and labor. The day-to-day activities and facility management of bE are supported through the employment of local staff members.

From our point of view, the central element that makes bE different from many other organizations that install similar renewable energy systems is their dedication to community involvement and long-term follow-through. It’s one thing to dump money somewhere and leave with a lightened heart. It’s another entirely to promote active community involvement and commitment to the technology, to provide training to energy commission members to operate and maintain these systems, and to help secure wider investment from outside sources to help insure lasting project sustainability.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bluefields, or Where Planes Refuel on the Way to the Corn Islands

blueEnergy’s center of operations in Bluefields, Nicaragua makes it a reasonable panga ride away from the coastal communities it serves (Kahkabila, Monkey Point, Set Net) and an unreasonable distance from pretty much everywhere else. People do not come here. It is not spoken of as a vacation destination. You can, and we did, request a one-way ticket in Managua to Bluefields (with reservations) and still receive a round-trip ticket to the Corn Islands. This will only become evident at baggage check.

The only other gringos you will see here are on their way somewhere else.

There are two options for getting to Bluefields, one of which is quick and painless. The plane ride from Managua runs about $80 one way, $130-ish ida y vuelta. They will leave as soon as the plane is full, so it is strongly inadvisable, for example, to scamper off to the international section of the airport to change money and leave your spouse hanging out with your stuff while the plane begins boarding forty-five minutes early. Once safely aboard, do not sneeze. The plane will roll.

The other option is by bus, then boat. It is cheaper, slower, and scenic. Spanish for crocodiles is cocodrilos. Keep your hands to yourself and everything will be fine.

Upon safely arriving in Bluefields, you will find two casinos, a Tip-Top Chicken (fast food that’s as good as it sounds), a wharf, market, small downtown shopping area, and pulperias selling beverages and fruits every other house. You can buy Toña in three minutes, walking, round-trip, if you take your sweet time. The population is 55,000 people, though it seems smaller. The streets are full of taxis and thin dogs seeking employment in scratching themselves. There are few private vehicles here, due to the general inaccessibility by road and the relative costs. Sometimes, there are sidewalks. You will have a difficult time finding a lighter outside of downtown, but not matches. Forget everything you know about craft beer.

It’s difficult to say what it would be like coming here outside of an institutional presence. People seem to generally know what we’re doing, or who we’re involved with, and blueEnergy has close ties with the community and a local technical school here. It’s less safe at night, after ten o’clock, regardless of who you are. The nightlife is limited but lively. Everything is cheap, by American standards. If you manage to make your way out to visit, take the plane, bring a hammock, and we’ve got the first round.

Monday, December 15, 2008

They Haven't Deported Us Yet

Greetings to family, friends, vaguely ferocious felines, fellow imbibers of craft beverages, and future providers of floor space.  We have safely arrived in Bluefields, Nicaragua and are already making promising strides in providing shelter and nourishment for underprivileged mosquitos.

We are volunteering with the non-profit organization blueEnergy, which installs and supports hybrid renewable energy systems in isolated Nicaraguan communities.  bE has an active base in Bluefields of about eighteen volunteers from the U.S., France, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere, as well as administrative offices in San Francisco and Paris. 

Our central role here - as in, Ken and Ali's central role - is to try to become immersed in one of the communities (Kahkabila) in which bE has recently installed an additional hybrid wind turbine and PV energy system.  Certain things are unknown.  Our extended trip to Kahkabila may or may not occur in late January.  It may or may not last two months.  It may or may not include teaching English classes, working on eco-tourism, or installing a water filtration system.  Like nearly all things in Nicaragua so far, it will be generally indeterminate in time, itinerary, and overall functionality.

More information about blueEnergy can be found here.

This blog is intended to document our travels and travails over the next twelve months.  The sense of time will be distorted.  We will jump and flip.  The focus will tend to be towards the things that strike us as most interesting, in Managua, Bluefields, Kahkabila, Pearl Lagoon, and, following the initial six months spent with blueEnergy, throughout Central and South America (or wherever the current takes us at that time).  Future items of interest could include strategic domino openings, machete maintenance, a handy guide on how not to get your ass kicked and clothes stolen, and a touching feature article regarding a Kahkabilan monkey named Fishy.

We harbor no (or few) illusions regarding the relative intrigue of our own daily lives, and in general things will focus on the food, foliage, creatures, and communities here.  There will be pictures.  There will be merriment.   There will be attempts at attempting these things daily.

In the broader scheme of things, this blog will hopefully serve as a place for family and friends to check up on us in an efficient manner, a place to focus on the various things that bE is doing for the communities here, and a chance for us to experience things more carefully.  

Please feel free to contact us, post comments, make a small donation to blueEnergy, or forward this along to anyone who might enjoy reading about two gringos trying to get by in Central America.