Friday, May 10, 2013

International Guests and Final Reports: wrapping things up from Anna

It’s been a flurry of activity with the first onset of international guests! We had an informative week with Dr. Richard Komp building solar ovens and as my time here comes to a close, I’m working hard to finish up a few final projects.

Visiting from Canada are Charlene and Sally, with whom I have luckily been able to team up with to fix up a few places and spaces. Sally and I are putting together an information board and area map, which we hope will help provide visitors and tourists with a better idea of Salado Barra. So far, we’ve sketched out the various canals and have spoken with local guides about what species – both flora and fauna – we are most likely to find in each. Given that Salado, like all systems, is both social and ecological, we are also trying to integrate some of the lesser known aspects of the community including historic sites such as the Casona as well as local businesses including restaurants, the solar workshop, jewelry-making and we are even thinking of organizing community-based homestead tours!

Alongside the information board and area map, we’re also keeping busy getting the café up and running. While it’s been a bit slow getting everything organized and permission to go ahead with certain changes, I have drafted up some permaculture designs for the garden, and slowly but surely, we are moving forward. We hope that the café will serve as a getaway for tourists, providing a relaxing safe haven of warm banana bread, coconut tabletas, fresh squeezed juice and a nice swing in the hammock. We also hope that the café will offer a venue for the community’s micro-enterprises to set up shop, selling solar cell phone chargers, jewelry, dried fruit, and local products. Needless to say, the next month will be a perfect bustle with which to end my stay.

As I was filling out my final reports for FBC, I was thinking about all the many things that made this experience as amazing as it was. There is something really cool about coming into a totally unfamiliar space as an absolute stranger and to actually feel the community learning about you, understanding you, trusting you, and opening up to you. Of all the experiences I have had here, I think this is the one that stands out the most; developing a sense of belonging, a sense of caring and being cared for, and more than anything, a sense of being part of something bigger. It’s not the trips around the country nor the nights out in Ceiba that have made this experience what it is, it’s the people we share our days with. It’s sitting in the kitchen of Dona Irma surrounded by sons and daughter-in-laws, sisters and brothers, eating pastelitos and drinking thick coffee. It’s building sand castles on the beach with Kenya and Edouin or listening to the spray of water against the side of the lancha as David navigates us through the mangroves by moonlight and stars. It’s a campfire on the beach, a tortilla-making session, a game of hide-and-seek, a gift of fried fish, a motorcycle lesson, a game of pool. It’s seeing real smiles on peoples’ faces, hearing real excitement in their voices, and feeling real hugs when they greet you. It’s a sense of home. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bees and Bikes, Follow-Up From Sabana Grande

Arlen and Jessie get ready to transfer two hives
into the top-bar bee hive
Well, this Latin American adventure certainly has proven wild and rich! Acquaintances have become close friends, a once new environment has become that familiar mountain-range, this scary new language now comes more naturally. As months pass and I grow more accustomed to this world, sometimes I have to remind myself how incredible it is—that it is not normal to be pressed between seventy Nicaraguans and two piglets on a roaring, multi-coloured, high-speed school bus.
Among so many favourite parts, I will start with my work here. 

A short search for funding led me to a familiar Ottawa business, Third World Bazaar, and their generous sponsorship to start Bici-Futuro, a bicycle rental company with a local youth group Los Jovenes Pedaliando Hacia el Futuro (JPHF). Since January, we have purchased bikes and parts for repairs, formed a bicycle committee led by three Jovenes coordinators, acquired space in an new adobe building on-site for storage and store-front, gained international and local attention from online journals and American entrepreneurs, and, this February, started service with our first customers. This micro-enterprise is a first experience for me and JPHF in the business world, so it has been great training to witness the challenges we encounter—pricepoint is an important art, for example. A most notable struggle for me was combining North American business practice with socialist Nicaraguan culture. This youth group puts all profit towards tuition fees for any member who cannot afford to further their education. While I prepared to start clocking hours and wages, they were already working as a unit. And so far we have enough money to send someone to university for three months!

Maria Magdalena moves fifty-pound adobe bricks.
This building will be the new youth centre with space for a bicycle shop.

The bicycle company has become my favoured focus, but it develops alongside many other fun projects here. My herbal tea garden is flourishing, and the music classes for kids morphed into a jewelry-making club with bracelets and earrings for sale at the restaurant here. With Greg’s visit came the bees. Before they left, Ben and he built a top-bar bee hive in which Arlen, a local girl, and I are keeping African honey bees. Grupo Fenix is excited about this project and is making moves to hire Arlen as an in-house beekeeper. A trip to wonderful Mira and Anna and the Salado project exposed me to the radically different Honduran politic and what it really means to be in the tropics. I took the Salado Solar Team back with me to Sabana Grande and they had a grand time honing their skills and exchanging tortilla tips with the Mujeres. It is very interesting to see how these Hondurans and Nicaraguans learn from each other.                
Marcel, JPHF member, and Temon, a volunteer, assembling the new bikes
in front of the Solar Center.

I cannot believe I have only weeks left here. I do not think I have learned as much in an eight-month period as I have these last months. I am exhausted but so pleased with my experience. I will leave Nicaragua impressed with its people, inspired by the changes happening here, and of course instantly itching to return.   

Final post from Noelle in Honduras

I can’t believe I’ve been living and working in Utila for over one month and that I only have 3 weeks left here! While time has gone by quickly, I feel like I’ve contributed a significant amount to the project at IRBS, keeping busy with a diverse mix of activities.

Volunteers from the IRBS including myself have continued helping with the recycled glass bottle workshop at the local NGO Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA). The glasses we’ve made have been sold to several other bars in town, showing that the recycling trend is picking up in smaller businesses too!

One of the projects I am most involved with is in Environmental Education, where I have helped compile a manual as an informative guide on environmental themes including ecology, anthropological impact on the environment, climate change and sustainable tourism. After meeting with local school teachers on March 11, we will establish a schedule for IRBS volunteers including myself to help give presentations on these topics to the students.

Overall, I believe that one of my biggest feelings of accomplishment has come from coordinating the recycling workshop with the local children, both girls and boys. I’ve noticed a change in attitude in the children in terms of creativity in using a wide variety of different materials and openness to trying new things. Since my last update, we have made a “city” built on cardboard with toilet paper rolls and juice boxes. We also hope to make a mangrove mural made out of bottle caps along the same concrete wall where the museum that hosts the workshop every Friday afternoon is located. During my time here, I have also really appreciated giving tours to international tourists about the local flora, fauna and iguana conservation issues, and to the police to inform them of the issue of iguana poaching on the island.

Last week was unpredictably busy due to a tragic accident that had happened the previous weekend. A family of 3 – the driver, his wife and daughter – was on their way home riding along the airport’s unlit road when they were hit by a drunk 18-year-old driver on another motorcycle, causing tremendous injury to himself and to his two-year-old daughter, leading to his death and his daughter’s deteriorated health. As a result, a raffle fundraiser was held on March 1st for the local Jackson family in order to raise money for the costs incurred by this terrible event. IRBS volunteers promoted the raffle event and informed tourists about what had happened, bridging the gap between the locals, the IRBS volunteers and tourists by showing our support within the community. We also donated all of that week’s proceeds from the tours and movie night events held at the station to the family.

This past week we went to the Western Path mangrove site to monitor the Swamper iguanas. Here, we spotted 36 Swampers in an area of close to 1km², the largest number recorded to date! Yesterday, a few IRBS volunteers, myself included, helped experts in mangrove restoration that had come from Mexico and Honduras’ mainland research in Utila’s mangroves. This group does environmental consulting for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on a regular basis. 

My contribution included measuring four 1m² transects, counting the amount of pneumatophores, small roots growing upwards to promote the absorption of oxygen for the rest of the mangrove plant. Of the total found in the area of study, I was required to extract 10 percent for lab work. It wasn’t an easy task, but getting dirty in the mangroves is rewarding if it is followed by a rinse-off in the crystal clear sea! After discussing my internship with FBC with one of the specialists, they mentioned working on mangrove restoration with another FBC intern in Omoa…Brittany Macgillavry! What a small world! I am so grateful and excited to have been a part of this project, and to have had the opportunity to gain technical experience in the field! 

 On top of promoting its environmental education and iguana breeding and monitoring programs, t
he IRBS hopes to serve as a model of sustainable living for its national and international volunteers and as a demonstration centre for visitors, by transforming itself into an establishment that produces minimal waste. I have already begun working on developing a vegetable garden and improving its compost system. I hope to see these projects through before the end of my placement.

Overall, the experience I have gained from living and working in an intercultural context such as Utila has made me aware that internships like these are so important for recent graduates to gain hands-on experience in their field of interest for future work and study opportunities, and to gain new skills in the process. 

Update from Elisa in the Dominican Republic

The cool night breeze sweeps through the apartment bringing with it my daily dose of Bachata music. I am already starting to wonder about my cultural re-integration into
Canada  where I won't have Latin music serenading me to sleep every night.

Music and fiesta are a big part of Dominican culture. We are lucky to be just a public taxi drive away from one of the world renounded carnivals in La Vega.  Every Sunday for all of February, hundreds of teams participate in the parade to show off their  frighteningly beautiful costumes. Hoards of spectators quickly snap pictures of the event all the while dodging the "vejigas" of the "diablo cojuelos".  True to their name, these children dressed as devils, run around smacking anyone who isn't watching their back.  As much as it stings, you can't say you have had the full the carnival experience until you have unsuspectingly gotten hit! Most of the teams participating have a "cueva" or home base where they provide their  invited guests with viewing spots out of danger's way. These cuevas sport the colours of their team and are exclusive to the group's fans. Teams spend all year preparing for this event. They must design their outfit, fundraise, coordinate tasks, hire private security and prepare a playlist of catchy music for every weekend of February!!

All to say, our repertoire of Latin music and mastery of the Dominican Cibaeño is growing daily. It will be interesting to touch base with all the other interns and show off our dialects. Having the opportunity to work in such a large area  through the Model Forest Network of the Dominican Republic means  that we get to cover a lot of ground, meet a lot of people and learn all kinds of expressions! Since our last blog post, we have been filling our weeks with commitments at ecotourism destinations, surveying sites for reforestation projects, documenting various community meetings  and giving website design workshops  to youth.

We have finally identified four local youth that will take over updating the Model Forest Colinas Bajas website once we leave.  These highly motivated and knowledgeable youth have been participating in our classes and have distinguished themselves as savvy website
designers and reporters.  The month of February has been dedicated to phasing them into the project and getting them familiar with their duties. The other students in the class are also slowly mastering blogging. Only one month left until the end of the workshops!

As  some of our portfolios  are smoothly coming to a close, others are still bustling with tasks to finish. We  continue to facilitate international collaboration between ENDA-DOM and the various Peace Corps members in the region. Adam has been heavily involved in developing a sustainable management plan for a plantation project with a Peace Corps volunteer from the Community Economic  Development sector and the Incubadora de Empresas de Cotui. Meanwhile, I am assisting with a smaller reforestation project to protect a water source near Castillo and helping out with administrative tasks for a Peace Corps  aqueduct project in the
community of El Corozo.

Even though our weeks fill up with commitments all over the region, we still spend a good chunk of our time in Cotui.  A little home project I have been tirelessly trying to coordinate is completing a compost bin for kitchen waste. What started out as a simple city friendly
compost bin for our organic waste turned into three months of phone tag with the carpenters. Nevertheless, it's finally done!!! We are the proud owners of a snazzy compost bin. The apartment staff are also really excited as they look forward to fertilizing their plantain trees. I can finally not feel bad about all the organic waste I produce from my fruit smoothies!

One more month of fresh papaya and zapote smoothies before we head North!!!

Un abrazo grande,

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More from Russell in Costa Rica

Entering the latter portion of my time here, I am glad to report having come in step with the pace of work and life here. Days flitter on by, but ideas come through to reality in their time. Will their fruits be sweet? Like my newly bearing backyard tomatoes, the answer can’t be rushed, but I can throw a shovel of compost on it.

Drawing up observations from our habitat field trip
with kindergarteners, comparing river and forest areas.

On the work front, it is a sort of shifting rotation between tasks, literally in step with the lunar cycles. The nursery is picking up steam and giving me a chance to learn tidbits of plant propagation while resting my eyes from the computer. Overseeing the nursery, I scrounge up seeds and cuttings whenever I happen upon them, trying to time cuttings with the waning moon (menguante), when their ‘energy’ is directed root-ward. Waxing moon (creciente) is time to cut the grass and mulch, slowing re-growth. The last week we played with bamboo construction, building a no-mist recovery chamber (basically a low poly tunnel) for wildlings (wild seedlings) we will gather from the montaña next week, inspired by the success of our partners in the Philippines. Working early mornings and afternoons in our yard and that of neighborhood farms is great to round and the day, and to bank hours so I can take off to go surf.

Aside from updating of our website and the slow process of getting our plant database online, my office work has become largely focused on refining the Forest Garden Product (FGP) certification standard with Eduardo, in order to meet the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements’ (IFOAM) Common Objectives and Requirements of Organic Standards (COROS) – in other words to get recognized as a solid standard by the global grand-daddy of organic standards. The complexity and novel qualities of our production requirements, a lack of support from the creators of the standard, and our total inexperience in the realm of certification has given us a good challenge, as well as an opportunity for me to unleash my eye for detail. If you didn’t get enough acronyms already in this paragraph, we are hosting a workshop next week on Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), a means to ensuring quality production practices while reducing the need to involve costly third-party certifiers.
With Jana, our new artistically-gifted (among many other gifts) intern on the team, we’ve had the chance to awaken the creative juices as we conjure up icons to bring life to the AF principles. Jana has also been a serious enabler for eating really good food. Play-wise, if our lives are rather simple (not that I have any problem with surfing, yoga, mountain hike adventures, and endless swims), at least we eat ridiculously well. Seasonal harvests of pejibaye, caimito, manzana de agua; abundant backyard oranges, so sweet with the summer sun; fresh river shrimp; curry full of local spices and seasonings… we do alright.

Update from Noelle in Utila

My first two weeks on the Bay Island of Utila have far exceeded my expectations. Since starting work at the Iguana Research and Breeding Centre, I have been involved in a variety of projects and activities, some of which I have already seen the fruits of my labour, albeit relatively small.

On my first day, I participated in a recycled glass bottle workshop at the local NGO Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) with the other volunteers from the Centre, including a large group of biology students visiting from the capital, Tegucigalpa. During this workshop, we used a metal wire similar to what you would find in your typical oven to heat and cut the base of the bottles, and made drinking glasses out of them. These glasses were sold to a popular bar in town called Tranquila and we’ve already been served with them!

Last week we spent a total of 4 hours walking through a mangrove monitoring site to label trees we would use to set the limits for the iguana research area. Some of my responsibilities at the Centre include helping to take care of the Swamper iguana, a species endemic to the island of Utila, and whose habitat is in the mangroves. During my time here, I will provide support to the new mangrove restoration project by visiting various monitoring sites to assess the state of the mangroves in the hopes of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

I am also involved in the environmental education project, leading an “arts and crafts” workshop using recycled materials to raise children’s awareness about our current environmental issues and the need to reduce our waste while using our creativity to turn “garbage” into something useful or decorative. For instance, we made brooms out of a plastic pop bottle cut into strips, pen holders using toilet paper rolls and animals out of plastic cups.

We’ve held two of these workshops and this Friday afternoon, in honour of Wetland Day last weekend, we made a mangrove mural with bottle caps, cloth from a T-shirt and aluminum paper. We intend to continue this tradition with the support of local organizations including the Whale Shark Ocean Research Centre and BICA. With the beginning of the school year already started, I will help give presentations within the next few weeks on environmental themes including ecology, anthropological impact on the environment and climate change.

I’ve already had the opportunity to see the less-explored parts of the island, including the freshwater caves. We walked an hour to and from the caves, and lit up our way inside with candles, where swimming in the refreshing clear water paid off our hard work.

Within the next few weeks we hope to organize community events such as beach cleanups to raise awareness about the current waste management challenge and to get people feeling involved and contributing to making a difference.

I’ve been enjoying gaining hands-on experience in the environmental field and I look forward to seeing the rest of our projects through, learning from and contributing to them as much as I can.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Update from Anna in Honduras

Buenos Dias from Honduras!

It has been a busy few months since we last spoke and we are just finishing up, continuing to manage and beginning new projects! Rainy season is coming to an end and the sun has been out full force, unfortunately a source of envy for our fellow Canadians still in hibernation back home. That being said, we have a full month ahead of us with visitors coming from all over the Americas to lend a hand and experience the beauty that is Salado Barra.

So far the garden has come in wonderfully  - well except for the iguanas who have a particular fondness for carrots - there are trees, herbs, fruits and veggies a plenty! With the onset of the hot weather, I am hoping to test out our new solar dryer so as to make teas and seasoning for the community to sell at their new - drumroll and pause for emphasis - cafe! That is right ladies and gentlemen, a new cafe! Currently Mira and I have been drafting up a revised ecotourism management plan alongside Fallsbrook Center and our partner organization La Fundacion Cuero y Salado. While a management plan for the refuge already exists in theory, it's implementation in practice has faced considerable challenges.  A lack of resources, transparency, supervision, cooperation and communication has led to the deterioration of management at various levels. As a result, we are hoping to start off fresh from the bottom up, working with different price points and micro enterprises in the community, including the jewelry group, the solar panel group, the tour guides and hospitality centres and the up and coming cafe. 

Given our isolation, it has been quite a task getting everything ready for this month's grand opening. Sanding and varnishing tables and chairs, refitting the kitchen, securing windows, designing menu plans that are not dependent on electricity, hooking up new plumbing, sourcing food and material suppliers, organizing staffing... We certainty have had our work set out for us but it is exactly these hands on projects that provide the practical experience you can't get in school. After spending some time chatting with fellow intern Jessie Lyon who is visiting from Nicaragua, it has been really cool to see how much freedom we have had in designing our own projects. One of the many lessons learned during this start-up as well as during our whole time down South, has been how to take initiative and to self-direct. To recognize opportunities and to act on them rather than to wait for instruction. It has been an interesting experience training myself to think simultaneously at both the macro and micro scale, to push myself creatively and to plan both short and long term. 

Kites flying from boats on the water!
Skilled kite handing...

On a different note, last weekend we celebrated 'Wetland Day' which consisted of different environmental education activities, canoe races and two very full piñatas! While Mira and Jessie maintained composure amidst a shower of chiclets, bonbons, dulces and gorditas, the 12 year old in me was set loose. Confetti in our hair, dirt under our nails, sandals thrown aside, candies stuffed in every which pocket, we came together as adults and children, men and women, Canadian and Honduran in a throng of screaming laughs, celebrating the many people, places and passions of our beautiful world. 

Hasta la proxima vez,


Anna, Mira and Noelle enjoy fresh coconut milk.