Thursday, April 30, 2009

Adios, Mundo

The final post, as written on my flight back home...

As I write this last post, I have already left Nicaragua. In fact, I am currently on the plane, probably somewhere over Mexico en route to Houston. And that means that after a week of progressively more difficult goodbyes, yet another good thing has, in fact, come to an end.

After telling myself all week that I was ready to go home, it was much harder than I expected to finally leave our house in San Isidro once and for all. I think it finally hit me as I locked the door and waved goodbye to one last neighbor kid while saying ‘Adios, Mundo.’ I said that because the boy’s name is Mundo (short for Edmundo), but as I said it I realized the greater implications of that final goodbye. After all, in Spanish, ‘Adios Mundo’ means ‘Goodbye, World’, and I really was saying farewell to the little world that I’d been a part of over the last four months, a place I hadn’t realized existed half a year ago but will now miss so much.

For anyone who has studied or volunteered abroad, gone to college, moved to a new city, or just plain grown up, it’s a familiar story. Places once considered foreign and new – where you cried because you didn’t know anyone and you missed your old life – can, in even a very short time, turn into places that later make you cry when you have to leave them. In other words, they can turn into ‘home.’ At age 23, I have already experienced this phenomenon many times over, with ‘homes’ in Cedarburg, Milwaukee, New York, Chicago and now Nicaragua. And it is because of these other experiences of the changing definition of home that I leave Nicaragua momentarily sad but also confident that I will stay connected to this place well into the future. Already, my Skype buddy list has doubled in the last week as I’ve promised to ‘estar en contacto’ with all my friends from work. My suitcase is currently filled with jewelry made by the children of the NicaHope project which I plan to sell back in the States (prepare to be asked!) I have already begun discussions with Fabretto about ways to stay involved, such as through the Wisconsin-Nicaragua partnership I wrote about awhile back. Finally, every goodbye I said over the last week ended with me saying ‘I’ll be back in November’- and not just because it’s easier to say that than to say goodbye for good. I really do look forward to spending a week back here next fall/winter, as well as future trips for years to come.

In closing, thanks to all for reading this blog and sharing this amazing experience with me. While it does feel a bit sad to say goodbye to ‘Nica Nicky,’ 'Chi Nicky' is excited to be back with all of you very soon.

Last pictures here and here

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A few thoughts from the last day...

Today was my last full day here in Nicaragua, and it's been a really good if bittersweet end to the 4 months here. Just thought I'd jot down a few thoughts from the day. Don't worry, blog readers...this will not be my last entry. I'm planning on posting one more from the airport tomorrow to close things out.

I started out the day going up to one of the San Isidro schools one last time. I had actually brought one of the cooks up there a camera from home, and I wanted to teach her how to use it. I was worried because she told me it 'didn't work' and that she'd need to buy a battery recharger to use it, which made me feel bad. However, I figured I'd give it a look and see if I could fix it. It was another one of those moments of realizing what we take for granted in the States. It turned out that she thought the camera was broken because she just has never used a camera and didn't know how to load the batteries, take pictures or access the photos to view them. Within 5 minutes of me looking at it, we were already using it. I think she was excited about it, and it was cute because she asked to take a picture of us together so that she'd have it as a memory.

I then rode back to the office with Roger, one of the Fabretto drivers who has taken really good care of me over the last four months. He was asking me about what I will do when I get back to the States and we were talking about where he lives and where I live. He told me he wanted to show me pictures of his family before I left, and then he said that he wanted to ask for one small gift from the States if/when I come back. I said sure, thinking he might ask about more 'dog food' (since I had shared puppy chow with him in the past). Instead, he said he'd like to see a picture of me and my home. I thought that was pretty cute...and since I actually have a lot of pictures on my computer, he and I did a little show and tell this afternoon (he showed me pictures of his family, and I shared pics of Chicago and my family).

This afternoon the receptionist here at the office, Dona Lucia (another person who has been a tremendous help to me) came by to give me a going away gift. They were two hand-embroidered pillow cases that say 'remember Nicaragua' that she had made for me by a relative. It was really sweet.

Other than that, there have just been a lot of goodbyes spread throughout the day. The big last hurrah will be tonight because we are having a little despedida happy hour with the office. After that, I'll probably say goodbye to the neighbors, do one last big ice cream run with the roommates, and hit the hay before my day of traveling tomorrow.

While it is really sad to say goodbye to everyone here, I am getting excited about heading home too (minus, perhaps, the part about flying to Houston amidst this crazy flu pandemic). There are a lot of fun things coming up this summer and I'm ready to get back to Chicago to see family and friends.

Off to happy hour I go...I'll be back tomorrow for the final entry, and then I'll see you all soon back in the States!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So what did I accomplish?

Yesterday I had my final meeting at work to hand over my last output and plan for the future. It was a good time to reflect on what, exactly, I accomplished in four months volunteering for Fabretto.

As a first priority, I created an Excel workbook that compiled the nutritional content of various typical Nicaraguan foods. By entering the quantity, in grams, of each one of these ingredients, you could see what percent of daily nutritional requirements were covered in total, as well as how much it cost.

From this tool, I made a list of raw ingredients that would best provide 40-50% of all required calories, vitamins and minerals while keeping to our budget of $0.30 per kid per day. I used this list to then build a 2 week menu of 10 nutritious, typical Nicaraguan plates, including vegetable and chicken soup, scrambled eggs, burritos, Indio Viejo (a stew), and Arroz a la Valenciana (a rice dish with chicken and tomato).

Once we had our final menu, it was time to implement it. I created several files to support this process, including a recipe book, an Excel workbook with the quantities of ingredients needed based on the number of kids eating, and a sheet that pulled together all of these ingredients into a consolidated order.

More importantly, we held a series of orientations and training sessions with cooks, administrators, warehouse managers and other key nutrition program contributors to explain our goals, introduce them to the new menu and teach them how to prepare the meals.

In addition to ensuring a healthy daily meal, the standard menu is also a key first step to centralizing purchasing within the organization. Knowing what each school is serving each week and what ingredients go into those meals allows Fabretto to know, at a macro level, the total amount of each ingredient it uses weekly by region. This information will be critical as negotiations with suppliers continue, because Fabretto should use its high volume as a bargaining chip.

Finally, beyond the menu, I also helped put together some data to give Fabretto a comprehensive view of just how much its nutrition program costs annually. Beyond the $0.30 per child they spend to buy food weekly, there are also costs associated with warehousing and transporting donated food, running the kitchens and administrating the program. This information is important for two reasons. First, Fabretto has recently begun moving toward a school sponsorship model of fundraising where possible. This means that Fabretto looks for donors to sponsor all the costs associated with a whole school, including supplies, salaries, and the lunch program. To know how much it costs to run the nutrition portion of a school, then, Fabretto needs numbers like these. The second use of the cost data is for allocating restricted funding received. If Fabretto gets a donation to cover the nutrition program, it should be able to use those funds to cover the various aspects of the program – not just food but also transportation, labor, etc. Without a clear picture and explanation of those non-food costs, though, this kind of allocation is difficult.

Some people have asked me if I’ve accomplished all I had wanted to at Fabretto, and that’s a hard question to answer. I would say that the projects described above represent about 2/3 of what I set out to do on day one, and that was back when I was only supposed to be here 3 months. However, that was also back when I didn’t quite realize the extent of the task at hand or the [slow] pace at which it would move. Once I readjusted my expectations in light of certain hurdles here in Nicaragua (sometime around February), I would say that my goals were close to that which I actually accomplished. The one project that I would have liked to see further along, however, was that of centralized purchasing. The menu that we’ve created is solid and at a price per child that is close to the budget. However, it does not save Fabretto much if any money over the level they were spending before. The real cost saving opportunities lie in taking the next step and negotiating with a handful of large suppliers for better prices and volume discounts. I would have loved to push those negotiations further than I did, but it became apparent to me early on that composing a list of potential suppliers was no easy task. Without many connections here in Nicaragua, and with few suppliers online, it was hard for me or the other volunteer that I worked with to really make much progress on this front.

The good news on the purchasing, though, is that the new volunteer that is coming in May to work on nutrition will be able to focus on that more than I ever was. With another person pushing along the progress already made, I’m fairly confident that Fabretto will be buying at reduced prices from centralized providers sometime this year.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Last Weekend

After some 15 blog posts on my various weekends here in Nicaragua, I have finally come upon the last. It goes without saying that the time has gone unbelievably quickly. However, I also find that, thinking back on weekends past, I’ve really done a lot. I’ve traveled to Granada, Leon, Laguna de Apoyo, Ometepe, Masaya and the beach. I’ve visited four of the five markets here in Managua, including the biggest in Central America. I’ve washed my clothes by hand on a washboard. I’ve had nights of going out and nights staying in and playing scrabble, crocheting, making dinner and eating Eskimo. In short, I’ve had a lot of fun weekends, and my last weekend no doubt continued this trend.

Friday night after making dinner at home, Kelly and I went to Caramanchel, the bar with the hammocks and wine, to see a concert with our friend Rosario and some of her other friends. We got there relatively early (since, to be honest, we had no idea when the show started) which was good since we got a table and got to see both of the opening acts. The main group finally came on around midnight, and it was a relatively young/new rock group that has become one of the most popular here in Nicaragua. They definitely put on a good, high energy show and we had fun dancing until pretty late.

Saturday was a big day for errands and cleaning in preparation for my despedida party that night. It actually worked out pretty well because our neighbor, who has a car and a PriceSmart card, helped us out with a bunch of it. Having direct transportation like that versus taking buses and hailing cabs probably cut a few hours off of our day and was well worth the $5 I paid him to do it.

First we went to PriceSmart on a hunt for, among other things, an ice cream cake. PriceSmart is a wholesaler much like Sam’s Club, and I have to admit that going there was like stepping back into the States momentarily. The set-up was exactly like a Sam’s Club at home, right down to the people with their sample tables in the aisles and the restaurant with greasy food and soft-serve beyond the check-out.

PriceSmart itself was kind of a disaster of a trip. We did score a huge 1.75L bottle of rum for a pretty good price, as well as 6 pounds of candy for the piñata, but beyond that it was all trouble. First, I couldn’t bring my bag into the store so our neighbor had to run it outside to some bag checking station. Then we realized they didn’t actually have ice cream cakes, just ‘cold cakes,’ which are easily confused with ice cream cakes because the words are the same in Spanish (queque helado). It was a bit of a maddening process to come to this realization too because I must have asked two or three people if they had ‘queques helados’ only to be led to the same place over and over where there were cakes kept in a fridge (not freezer) that were clearly not made of ice cream.

After we ruled out the cake, we went to the check out where I found out I couldn’t pay with my credit card, only cash, and also threw away the receipt that I would later realize was necessary for us to show at the door when we left. Then we got soft-serve (obviously) which gave me a brain freeze and made Kelly want to throw up. I also took out money at the ATM which, much to my dismay, came out in dollars instead of cordobas. In all my frustration over the mix up, I walked away from the ATM without taking my card back, which I only realized when our neighbor brought it to me after he took out cash. THAT would have been trouble if I’d left my only bank card/source of money sitting in the ATM. Then, just to really put the icing on the cold cake, we almost pulled away before realizing that my bag was still at the bag check. What a trip!

From PriceSmart things went a lot more smoothly – we got my piñata at the market and found a cake at the bakery chain in town. This cake, too, was a cold cake rather than an ice cream cake, but it ended up being the best cake I’ve had here in Nicaragua so that was okay.

When we got home, we finished getting ready for the party. By six we had about 15 of the neighborhood kids over anxiously awaiting the piñata. While we got it set up, they played with all the new games, which they LOVE, and which made me realize that Don’t Break the Ice, while a crowd favorite, is the most obnoxiously loud game ever created.

Soon enough it was piñata time, and the kids went CRAZY for it! I was literally beside myself watching the whole spectacle – from the kids begging for a turn to take a swing at it to the kids literally hurling themselves on the ground to scoop up the candy. It may have been one of the ten most dangerous things I’ve seen here in Nicaragua…and I’ve seen families of five riding on motorcycles. But, I guess that piñatas are dangerous by design, given that you have one kid swinging a stick near 15 others who are all gunning to get the candy out of the very target of the beating.

After an hour of the kids’ party, we were ready to clear them out and get ready for the adult party. My friend Rosario brought the pizza, Joe and I picked up the case of beer we bought for the occasion, and the people started coming pretty close to the 7:00 start time. There was a mix of neighbors, co-workers, and other volunteer friends, and it probably amounted to almost 20 people in all. We had a really good time hanging out and dancing…it was all I could have asked for in a despedida, and a great semi-last hurrah.

Sunday was basically spent doing work and packing around the house, though there was a glimmer of excitement when Kelly and I did Zumba (or rather, Kelly did Zumba and I showcased my inability to do any form of organized dance/work out). I also had my last Sunday night fritanga, which was good but made me nervous at the time since we had to go to a different place than usual. Joe described the experience as 'rolling the dice' because apparently they'd gotten parasites at this fritanga place before which, of course, made the food really appetizing. It's been 12 hours though and I feel fine so I think the dice landed in our favor.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Kids are Back!

After two weeks of basically gathering dust (except for the one night when Kelly, Joe and I played), the new games at the house finally got some use last night when three of the neighbor boys came over. The kids were sitting outside on the porch, and I told them that we had some new games. They immediately jumped up and ran to the game shelf (below) to check out the new toys.

Not surprisingly, the first game they pulled out was Don’t Break the Ice, and they really got into that one since a) they are young boys and b) the game involves pounding/breaking things.

Next we played Chutes and Ladders, my personal favorite. We had some problems with this one though, which I blame partly on my inability to explain the game without knowing the word for chute/slide in Spanish. It took a long time for the kids to figure out that you can’t climb slides or slide down ladders. They eventually got the hang of it.

Kelly taught them the third game, which was the always classic Candy Land. I hadn’t opened the Candy Land box prior, so it really brought back some memories to see old friends like Lord Licorice and Grandma Nut.

While I'm on a picture kick, here are some random shots from Ometepe that I never posted.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Goodbyes Begin...

Here in Nicaragua, goodbye parties are called despedidas, and they are muy popular. I’ve been planning one such party for this weekend with my friends in Managua, but I got a little surprise in Cusmapa yesterday because the administrator and a few others had an impromptu goodbye party for me as well.

On Tuesday, when I was talking to her (Sabrina) on Skype about the meeting in Cusmapa yesterday, I mentioned that I was sad because it would be my last visit. She said “Oh no, we have to throw you a going away party.” I told her that wouldn’t be necessary, but then we kept teasing about it yesterday.

At one point yesterday afternoon, I had been working in a different part of the office and walked back into administration unexpectedly. When I did, a girl was carrying a vase with some fake flowers in it, and when I looked at it, everyone in the room made a face at me like I wasn’t supposed to see. I covered my eyes, laughed, and then promptly turned bright red. Over the course of the rest of the afternoon, I saw people occasionally bringing in treats and sodas, so it was pretty apparent some sort of party was going down.

At the end of the day a huge herd of people (about 50% of whom I’d never met, humorously enough) came into the office for a ‘meeting’ and, of course, when I went in I found, instead, a going away party for me.

The director gave a little speech, everyone sang me a Spanish goodbye song, I gave a little speech (which was a little hard on the fly and in Spanish!), they passed out the sweet bread and sugarlicious soda, and a good time was had by all. It was definitely a thoughtful send-off, and it made me excited for round two on Saturday!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Top 20 Things I'll Miss about Nicaragua

As I head into my last week here in Nicaragua, I thought it would be fitting to mirror the entry from one of my first weeks here about what I missed about the States and instead list off what I will miss about Nicaragua. I have to admit that some of the things on this list were not some of my favorite parts when I first got here.

20. Doing dishes? – There are some definite benefits of a dishwasher (not the least of which is sanitation), and this past Monday when I looked at the huge pile of dishes that hadn’t been washed because we ran out of water, it did make me sort of angry. Still, I have to say that in general, washing dishes with a little Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background at the end of the day has become pretty therapeutic for me.

19. Low prices – This one is pretty self explanatory…all my groceries for a week cost $10-15 dollars, and rum and diets are $1.50 at the bars every night of the week.

18. Pirated movies – Paying a dollar for all the latest releases from the States is awesome…even if you stumble across a dud now and then (like my copy of Confessions of a Shopaholic which is, inexplicably, dubbed in French) or have to watch on a laptop.

17. Endless summer – This is a mixed one for me – part of me will really miss having it be beach weather all the time…especially when it’s winter back at home. I still like the seasons though, and since I have the good fortune of coming back for summer and then fall (my two favorites), I don’t have to give this one up just yet.

16. Taxis without meters – Since you set the price of the cab ride at the beginning, it doesn’t matter how much traffic you sit in or how far you really end up going. I don’t look forward to watching the meter tick away back in Chicago…especially since the base fare is more than my average total fare here in Nica.

15. Cross country bus travel – I have to say that comparing work travel between home and here, I actually might prefer busing it in one of the Greyhound-style express buses over air travel. No security, no hassle, no early morning taxi rides. Only downside: no reimbursable $10 airport breakfasts and $5 airplane snacks.

14. People selling stuff everywhere – I still laugh every time someone passes selling fish, fruit, or rocks out of the back of their truck. It’s an essential part of my Saturday morning.

13. Kids/neighbors stopping in at random – As my roommates said the first few days I was in Nicaragua, it’s kind of like college the way the neighbors just float in and out of our open door. I’m sad to admit that I don’t even know most of my neighbors in Chicago, and I bet few of them would play ‘Don’t Break the Ice’ with me.

12. Cooking – I am going to try to do a lot more cooking once I get home, but the reality of my life as a traveling consultant still doesn’t permit much Monday through Thursday.

11. Market shopping – Even though the crowds, heat, and fly-attracting hanging meat can be a bit annoying at times, it’s still generally more fun to shop this way than at the Jewel.

10. Pulperias – Having about 8 tiny convenience stores within a block of our house comes in handy big time when you need eggs…or ice cream. That brings me to number 9…

9. Eskimo & Flor de Cana – There is both ice cream and rum in Chicago, but it is not as cheap or, dare I say, as good, as the Nicaraguan counterpart.

8. Speaking Spanish – I still continue to struggle with my Spanish in some contexts, finding it frustrating to communicate in the same way I can in English. Still, I am proud of how far I’ve come with my Spanish and will miss daily opportunities for practice and use.

7. Our porch – There’s nothing like waking up in the morning before it gets hot and sitting on our porch reading or watching the world go by.

6. Accessibility of the beach – It’s probably not surprising that the ability to hop a bus and be at the beach in 45 minutes makes my top ten.

5. Hobbies – At the risk of my Chicago life sounding quite boring, I have to say that before coming to Nicaragua, I did not read, draw, write or crochet nearly as much as I do now. Like cooking, I hope to keep these hobbies up, but realism tells me that when my free time begins to disappear, so will at least some of these hobbies (I am, however, hoping to be that consultant who crochets on the plane).

4. Having roommates – As someone who has always preferred to live alone in the States, this one even surprises me a little. I have remembered how fun it is to have someone to come home to and vent about your day, watch a movie with, eat dinner with, and so on.

3. Blackberry-free living – I have mentioned to a few people that recently, I have been hearing ghost blackberry vibrations as my mind turns to going back to work. I’ll think I can hear the vibrating sound (the one that tells me that I have an email from work), and then realize, to my relief, that my Blackberry is thousands of miles away. Not for much longer…

2. Sleep – Nine hours of sleep a day minimum is a luxury I haven’t had for years. I will miss this dearly.

1. The people – Not surprisingly, I have met some really fantastic people here – from neighbors to co-workers to other volunteers. And of course, as always seems to be the case with short experiences like this one, I feel like I am finally starting to get really close with people just as it is time to leave. Thank goodness for Skype to keep in touch in the interim and, with any luck, a trip back to visit later this year.

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