Raleigh: Phase 1 - Northern Nicaragua

Trip Start Feb 03, 2013
Trip End Jan 25, 2014

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Flag of Nicaragua  , Leon,
Saturday, July 27, 2013

The start of expedition phase one was almost upon us and on the morning of first phase allocations, PMs were given little slips of paper with our list of allocated Venturers. It was then up to us to make the announcement, to those lucky souls!

Each Alpha group chose a song and some dressed up; as Alpha 5 we chose the aptly titled "We Are Family" and rode out on a hobby horse. We formed a conga line winding around the terrace which grew as we called out the names and slightly bemused Venturers joined the end. Once all ten were collected, we set off to get to know each other better and for yet more icebreakers. Everyone was in high spirits, as we played banana songs and group tag to liven things up. Now that we were split into the six Alpha groups, it was very soon time to give the Venturers a taste of life on phase and once again we were headed for the dreaded Jungle Camp.

We gave instructions to pack light, loaded up the supplies across the bags and soon departed, for a shorter version of what the VMs had experienced. Navigation volunteers led the way and we were soon making good progress; unfortunately however in completely the wrong direction! After some prompting, the map was reassessed and after a large downpour and a quick "hi" as we passed by Fieldbase again, we were soon heading in the right direction. We had lost some time though and arriving last at Jungle Camp meant we had the worst camping spot, with seemingly a lack of useful trees but plenty of uncomfortable roots.

Following the downpour the ground was very muddy, it really was training this time! With basha demonstrations quickly given and a basha hammock promptly broken, camp was set in decent time. We had made up for lost time and were soon cooking dinner, followed by a review of the day. Though both tired and grubby, we all retired happily to bed and all our bashas made it through the night, unlike a neighbouring group. Once breakfasted we packed up once more and lugged everything, back down the now very muddy trail, to our rendevous spot with the Fieldbase team. On the way back, Gemma had a mystery (mock) mishap, which meant that once more a CASEVAC was required. Taking it in turns to carry the stretcher and not actually damage Gemma in the process, we eventually made it back to camp where she had a miraculous recovery. Upon return, we unpacked, washed up, debriefed and with first aid training out of the way, the Venturers got a taste of Salsa Night to liven spirits again.

With Jungle Camp done and dusted, it was soon time to pack up for the real thing. Our journey would again be made by bus and whilst we'd be walking the last stretch to our village, our bags would be taken with the tools on a pickup, so we could really pack what we liked. As the community would be cooking all our meals for us, our packing was very quick; unlike the trek groups which had to divvy up food for each of the nineteen days and bundle into food drops. Following final sessions on community projects, tools and cultural awareness, we were soon ready for the next mornings departure. A visit to the local Maxipali supermarket for last minute essentials (baby wipes, Tang and Oreos obviously), was followed by a tasty bbq and Venturer disco, before bed.

We were up before dawn the next day, to load up the buses and do a final blitz clean of Fieldbase. The journey up to Achuapa was spread over two days, as it had on PPV; however the three Nicaragua Alpha groups now totaled almost fifty, so we had our own Nica bus. After a long day on a comfy bus we arrived in Jinotepe, where we stayed the night in the outside corridor of a school. It was open to the elements at both ends, but with mozzie nets secured over backpacks and decent bathrooms, it wasn't as bad as it sounds. Next up on our journey was the party bus! The chicken buses (or camionettas) are old school buses, painted up in bright colours and used as public transport across Latin America. This one was a little different from the rest however, due to pumping music. Techno music at 5.30am wasn't completely welcomed but with the odd power ballad thrown in we embraced it!

Alpha 5 were the first group to be dropped off and we arrived in Achuapa around late morning. From there we heaped our bags and tools in a truck and hopped back on the party bus for the last of our journey. After a slight detour up and down rollercoaster roads, we were soon completing the last seven kilometres on foot. With only our day sacks to carry; beautiful scenery; a shallow river crossing and a pork and beans lunch stop on the way, the three hour journey passed swiftly. When we arrived we were greeted by our host families, who seemed in a somewhat sombre mood, but were still very smiley and welcoming.

A short speech was delivered, by a community leader and the Co-op representative; following which each family stepped forward and their new additions were announced. The looks on faces were priceless across the board, as new families were formed and headed off together to their homes. As we had already met our family on PPV, only our brother came to collect us, and led us back to our new home. It was on the way that Luis, who'd gone ahead in the truck with the bags, filled Gemma and me in on the reason for the sombre mood. There had been a murder in the next village (Monte Frio 2), less than a week before. The current undertanding was that a burglar had left the scene of the initial crime and after bumping into someone he knew, had shot him dead. The police had their suspects, but no-one had been charged, so the culprit was still at large.

This was obviously a very sad and somewhat alarming turn of events and when we arrived at our house, we were advised our sister was in mourning in the next village. We followed protocol and once settled in to our house, made an INCREP communication back to Fieldbase. They were clearly worried, but felt sure that the Co-operative would not have let us stay in the village, if there was anticipated danger. The village were understandably concerned about the murder, but felt relatively certain that it was a one off - on our first visit we'd been assured it was one of the safest and crime free places in the country. We were therefore instructed to find out further information and take extra security measures, by making sure venturers not only walked in pairs but bigger groups wherever possible. Living in a house with an onsite shop, made our family a little more nervous, so all doors had extra blocks against them at night.

That evening we went round to each of the venturer houses to check in with them and their families. The houses were all very simple, some had solar panels providing enough power for lights, but others did not. As our project would be providing running water, currently all the houses sourced their water from local wells and carried it back to their houses. Each house had it's own long drop latrine in the dusty garden were chickens, pigs, cows, dogs and cats wandering freely. The families were all very welcoming and even with the language barriers, tried to make everyone feel at home. There were some initial nerves and delivering the news of the incident in the next village, without being alarming was a challenge, but we handled it sensitively and both venturers and families were comfortable when we departed.

Our first week of the project was in fits and starts and at times it was challenging to keep morale up. The first couple of days were a bit of a non-starter regarding the project, as were were missing a maestro de obra (foreman) and the exact worksite was still being agreed upon. Unfortunately for us, the local school was on holidays so our planned lessons with them were also on hold. After a frustrating couple of days however, things got on the move; we were given a temporary maestro, so work could begin. Locating and unearthing a water source a couple of miles from the village, which was gushing with unpolluted fresh water was very satisfying. We dug the source hole deep and collected rocks of varying sizes to line the, soon to be constructed, tank with. It was a hard days work, but everyone was in a positive mood, as things were finally progressing.

The next day however we were told that we couldn't continue there, as permission had not been granted by the landowner, so we were back to square one. That same day though we were visited late, by members of a nearby Raleigh ICS (International Citizen Service) team, to explain another part of our role on phase. This was to conduct water and sanitation surveys in the community, thereby providing baseline data to measure life post project. We were the first team to be conducting the surveys, so it was new to everyone and though there were a number of concerns raised, the outputs were clearly important. The surveys though could only be started once the school was back, as some of the returning teenagers would act as our guides.

To fill in time whilst we awaited the restart of our work, we made sure to spend plenty of time with the community. We taught them a popular Raleigh energiser, named Ninja and were happy to see the local kids getting into it full swing. Football and volleyball games were also played and we spent time with our families, introducing Snap and other card games. The weather in Monte Frio was largely predictable, with temperatures in the mid to high thirties and also daily downpours in the afternoons, which eased the heat a little for the night. Life in the village was fairly sedate and we learned to be patient, as once the work started again, we'd be sweating it out. When the call finally came that all was agreed and we could commence work again, there were smiles all round.

This time we dug the right hole, in the right place and thankfully it was closer to the village, reducing our commute. The rest of our work days then fell into a pattern and we were joined by a changing crew of villagers, both old and (extremely!) young, to make swifter progress. We rose early and headed to worksite with tools and water supplies. We used pickaxes, mattocks and trench spades to dig long, deep and narrow trenches; into which the new water pipes would be laid. Some days we dug in direct sunlight, through rocks and hard terrain; other days were spent in shading patches, digging in what seemed like sand. We dug a large water tank, collected rocks to line it with, then filled it with concrete. We laid concrete blocks to form the walls, mixed concrete by hand and finally skimmed the walls to perfection. I am now proficient in the use of a number of tools; whilst still managing, with good gloves, to maintain my girl hands!

We broke each day at around eleven for lunchtime, when members of our families would bring hot meals up to the worksite, so that we could continue until early afternoon. After which it was too hot to work and the rain would inevitably arrive, so we headed home for siestas and to get cleaned up for afternoon activities. We were also joined for a couple of days by the roadtrip team, who brought tales from other projects and familiar smiling faces. There was no mobile reception in Monte Frio, so our only means of communication was an archaic radio and a sat phone; which we used to call in to Fieldbase twice daily. Without realising it, we'd fallen into village life and it was therefore great to hear news from the outside world.

Alongside the hard graft we also made time for other community priorities. The group was split into small survey teams and after one had mapped thirty houses in the village, the other teams went out to conduct the surveys. After some initial nerves regarding the sensitivity of some of the questions and how they'd be received, they actually went well and provided some valuable insights into rural living and how our water project would help to improve daily life. The headteacher of the local school, where the young children went to school in the morning and the teenagers in the afternoon, requested we also ran two English lessons at the school and a litter picking session. As the English teacher himself could not speak English, this was clearly useful for the students and fun for us too.

We were working six days a week, so we also made time for some fun on our rest day of Sunday, of which we had two whilst in the village. On our first Sunday, at the recommendation of our maestro, we raised a TRIPREP and made our way to a neighbouring village for what we expected to be a day of music, dancing and local cuisine. After the seemingly endless four hour walk however, we had only time to briefly meet our foreman; meet with the ICS group there; visit a previous Raleigh project and have lunch. It was interesting to find out more of what was happening and see another village; however one of the highlights ended up being visiting the local shop, as their village had electricity and therefore ice cold drinks! After another four hour walk back, we arrived home as dusk descended and quickly headed to our houses where dinner was waiting.

During our time in Achuapa, it was Luis' birthday and we celebrated with the village. Gemma, Luis and I awoke early and were treated to a cow milking lesson by our dad. It's a little harder than it looks, but was a novel birthday gift! The previous day a pig had been purchased, from a neighbouring village (which meant we didn't know it) and that morning we ate pork with our breakfast - perhaps the freshest meat I've ever had! That evening we had a slap up meal (of pork obviously), with Alpha 5 and all of our host families; accompanied with a cake I'd ordered, of which everyone got a slice. The following day was our final Sunday, which thankfully was significantly less strenuous than the last and on the recommendation of our families, we spent the day swimming and sunning at a local river.

It seemed like both a long and short time, since we'd arrived and then it was time for us to depart. It was with sadness, that we left our adopted families; after three weeks in the village, life had taken on a routine and had begun to feel like home. Waking to a cachophony of noises had become normal; from pig honks and squeals; to chicken clucks and squawks; baby and mother cows lowing; cockerels announcing the new day and the melodic sound of granny snoring! We'd been embraced by our hosts and after a slow start we'd progressed well with the gravity fed water project; laying the groundwork, for the next two phases to complete.

We were soon then retracing our steps southward, via party and Nica bus, back to Fieldbase. It was with some anticipation that things previously taken for granted, like running water, showers, food variety and beds, were now on the horizon. We arrived back in Fieldbase, with just three days of changeover before we would depart again for new projects. It was a rush of hugs, catch ups, laundry, and Turrialba time. Turri is not a pretty town, but is on the map due to nearby white water rafting. We visited to replenish supplies not available at Maxis, grab ice cream at Pops, or just get out of Fieldbase!

The phase was finally complete, once we'd presented our skits. I remember performing skits as a child and they were no less awesome and cringeworthy now! We performed a song, which we'd written when the roadtrip came to visit, entitled "Digging Pointless Holes Kills Our Souls". Whilst we didn't win the skit competition, it was a memorable end to our first phase and thoughts moved to what was in store next.
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