Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Los ninos todos tiene dereche

At the end of the meeting the community leaders and I were able to take a quick pic. How did I get that cowboys hat?

Its been too long since I wrote. Ive been desperately looking for an Internet cafe for the past few days. Ive been to a few different towns in the South East of El Salvador like Ulsultan, La Union and Zacatecaluca (I love that name) but I haven't found many options for Internet shops, actually I only found one but they only gave me 10 minutes before they closed up...at 7:00pm..what the hell...good ol Central American time I guess!

After cycling about 390 kilometres through Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador I finally made it to San Salvador. Ive seen some beautiful landscapes including dry flat desert lands, cool mountain top villages, smoking volcanoes and beautiful churches of all sizes. I was hoping for an easy 60 kilometer ride into San Salvador but I didn't get so lucky. It was a long uphill battle littered with sugar canes and wild El Salvadorian drivers that love the triple pass on the narrow 2 lane freeways. I'm pretty tired at the moment but San Salvador looks like a good place to get some rest and check out a sight or two before my meeting with Plan El Salvador.

At the moment I'm taking a second to write this from a small cafe in San Salvador's Colonial Flor Blanca district. I'm enjoying a nice Pilsner ^La Cereza De El Salvador^ and listening to some gun shots ring out in the distance. No worries...the shots are coming from the National Stadium down the street where El Salvador's Olympic Sharp Shooting team practises, or so I was told by the owner of my hotel. It would have been cool to catch a soccer game here for sure. I'm a huge fan....and it just so happens that the US and El Salvador face off in a month at this exact stadium for a World Cup qualifier. By The Way...I saw US beat up Mexico the other day. Good job boys! Colonial Flor Blanca is a cool part of town with some classic buildings from the 30s and 40s. These buildings are a great break from the shabby buildings that Ive seen the past week.

So, where did we leave off last? Ok...ya...Northern Nicaragua in a small town called Somoto.

A pic of the broken and rusted playground outside the school.

Quick note here before I get into it...A guy just walked into this cafe with a sawed off shot gun. I'm not quite sure if hes on the Olympic sharp shooting team with that one. I'm sure hes one of the many security guards from the various hotels, restaurants or street vendors around here. Everyone has a freakin gun around here! The other day I was at a Texaco and there were three guards with 2 guns each. Other than there hand guns they were carrying an automatic assault riffle and one dude had a nasty looking machine gun. Freakish!

Anyway...back to Somoto!

I met with Horacio Torres, he is Plans Director of Nicaragua, in Nicaragua's capital, Managua. The day after our initial meeting Horacio and I drove (yes...I didn't ride the bike...I hope you still love me) up to the frontier town of Somoto, Nicaragua to visit with the Plan Program Office. It was going to be a full 2 days. Horacio has just been assigned to Nicaragua so this was my opportunity to go with him to meet the Plan Program Office, Plans other non profit associates that work in the area, the Minister of Education for the State of Madriz and of course the communities themselves. It was a perfect opportunity to get involved and get a better understanding of what Plan is doing on various different levels.

My first visit with a Plan community was truly an emotionally charged day for myself and I'm sure for the people living in this small village on the outskirts of Somoto. To access the town we had to take a 4x4 truck down through a serious dirt roads over boulders and through dry river beds. This place was seriously remote!

One of the girls gave us all a presentation at one point. Here she is showing us a map she drew with the other kids of the village.

The object of the meeting with this particular community was to meet with the ^community leaders^. The community leaders are usually made up of volunteers from the community who act as a go between from the people and organizations such as Plan. This way the meetings can be efficient and organized. Great idea! Alcides, The Director of the Somoto Project Unit Office, set up a diverse schedule for Horacio while he was in town. For Horacio and I it was our first chance to meet the people, for the leaders of the community it was there opportunity to tell Plan what projects they were working on and what they're concerns were.

The meeting was held in the community school. The field outside was dusty and dry. A donkey wandered around in the distance. Some kids were playing but when they saw us they quickly found shelter back in the school, I'm sure they were a bit shy. There was a playground to the right and in front of the school but the toys and equipment were broken and rusted. A few chickens clucked and squirreled around us as we walked by. As I entered the school I noticed a small horse tied to the fence surrounding the field, no doubt its one of the farmers horses.

I used to be in Real Estate finance and this was a complete different atmosphere than any meetings we held on Montgomery street in San Franciscos financial district! I took a deep breath. I was a bit nervous because never before in my life had I had the opportunity to hear first hand the issues that people living in poverty are facing. I was also a bit nervous not because of the language, luckily I had a translator with me, but because...well...I just was! Fatima, the translator and Plans Public Relations Director was a super sweet lady who never missed a beat. She made sure I was always up to speed with what was going on. So...I took a deep breath and entered the classroom with the rest of the Plan people. I felt a rush of energy and calmness because I knew I was with good people.

The community leaders of the village were sitting in a semi circle. Horacio apologized for being late. I think they had been waiting for a few hours but they weren't about to go anywhere. I could see that they were smiling and seemed happy to have the chance to get to meet the director of Plan Nicaragua. There were probably about 10 people in all and a few of their kids, who I mentioned earlier, were quietly playing in the back of the room. We got straight to business.
Horatio is working the floor!

The community leaders started off by saying that they had spent $200 on a school garden, which Horatio strongly advocates, but because of a lack of money they cant afford a fence to protect it. Animals eventually ate all the vegetables in the garden. They also were thankful for receiving different fruit trees but they had another problem because they had to carry the water, a long way and sometimes the kids job, from the well to water the trees. The community leader representing the mothers of the village, a cute women probably no older than 20, was grateful for the chickens because they can give the baby chickens to the other families outside the village. Almost all of the community leaders were really concerned because not all of the children in the community were sponsored. This made funding short. They need more sponsors so they can buy more chickens, more seeds to plant fruits and vegetables. I could see in their faces that they needed more help. One of the men in the group, a farmer in an orange button up shirt and a huge cowboy hat and a wide smile that should get him a role in any country western movie, representing the farmers, stressed that they needed help fixing the broken wells.

After the initial round they all thanked Plan and said over and over again that without Plans work and generosity they wouldn't have the chickens or the seeds or the guidance. Horatio quickly responded, ^So, now we can Leave.^ Then threw on a big smile! ^No, no, no!^They said, getting the joke!

Horatio turned the joke into something a bit more serious. ^Why?^ What if Plan did leave?^ Its actually an important question, and it wasn't rhetorical, he wanted to hear there answers. One of them said something like, because Plan helps when theres a natural disaster. Horatio asked the same question again, ^Why?^ The farmer in the hat responded, ^because we want to get out of poverty.^

Did I just hear him say that...culture shock was setting in?!

Someone else added, ^because we have rights.^ Horacio pressed on as he was slowly strolling through the middle of the circle. Another woman, a strong looking woman with her hair pulled back, nervously answered, ^because of the children in the community.^ ^Correct, because of the children. The children have rights. That's why were here. We are responsible to ensure they obtain there rights. ALL YOU DO (he gave each one of them a long glance as he said this with emphasis) is for them. Feed them, protect them, raise them. They are not objects, instead they are people with rights who need to be protected.^ He paused for a moment to let the message sink in. Then he said, ^the children are the heart of you, not just a slogan or something to use.^ He said this as he drew a heart on his chest. They community leaders were getting the point.
Im trying to pay attention to the lecture in spanish...please help translate Fatima....please!!!

One of the community leaders raised a question. I could tell he was also a bit nervous about asking something, as if he was volunteered to ask the tuff question. He said that not all the children have sponsors (from the US, Canada or wherever). They have limited money and resources. He wanted to know if the children who are sponsored get the benefits of the funds that come from the child sponsors. But what about the children that aren't sponsored, he wanted to know?

Horacio paused for a moment. There was truly a tension in the room. This was their children, their families they were talking about. Of course it was a deeply private matter and they had to bring it up. The people from the community were obviously looking for help...looking for a bit of guidance. Horacio continued, ^Plan is here because of the rights of the children. Not just the sponsored children but all the children of the community. ALL children should have equal rights otherwise we are separating the sheep's from the goats. Affiliated or not they should be respected. Respect the rights universally. Its not about more but about equality. Children are not the future but they present because they are here now. We must not wait until they are adults because than its to late.^

Horatio isn't as concerned as much with the seed bank, or the chickens, or the fence or the well project as much as he is concerned about getting the message across to the people...the children need have have their rights respected....today. Horatio defiantly has an aura about him. Hes been doing this for about 25 years. He could probably be on any financial board of any bank working on million dollar deals or he could be a professor of any highly recognized University in the US. He is a total professional. But better than that he uses his skills and talents to help educate and promote the rights of the children who need it most. He is their banker, their professor, their leader. On top of that he also wears another hat proudly, he is a father and husband. Throughout his speech he mentioned his family and especially his three children and used their accomplishments as examples for the people in the village. I could tell that the community leaders instantly found a great amount of respect for Horatio, not because he was the ^Director^ but because everyone could tell that he was there to listen and to help. Horatio ended his talk with the volunteers of the community with a single slogan, ^its today...not tomorrow^.
This community leader is showing Horatio and ALcedis an aerial map of the community. He said that Plan has helped the community learn more about natural disasters. Now they feel prepared and confident when its the rainy season. Before they would just hope the river didnt flood.

I felt at that moment so many different things. There was so much to do, so much overwhelming work. One could spend a year, or a team of people could spend a year or even longer helping this community. There was so much to do! I turned to Fatima and asked her how many villages were in the area. She said in this area alone there were ^82 villages!^

82 villages! What the F/&K!!!!!! Unbelievable! 82 villages with 82 sets of problems. I was completely overwhelmed.

So here I am, completely flushed with emotions I have never even thought of, hearing the stories and meeting for the first time the people. I'm not going to lie...I felt a bit guilty at times. There concerns were about animals eating there vegetables, not getting chickens, not affording seeds, or worried about safety from the weather, or safety for there children as they fetched water for the plants. My concerns back home would at times be about losing the keys to my car or finding a cabin in Lake Tahoe for a ski weekend with friends. With all of the difficulties they and there families faced they were still full of hope, still smiling, and still willing to do whatever work it took to help there families. It was very difficult to hear the cowboy say, ^I want to get out of poverty.^ Thats something I only heard on TV or in the movies...thats something I will never forget. But to shake this mans hand, to look him in the eyes and to hear his story was truly and inspiration and emotional time.

There was a parallel theme between these talks and this ride that I'm on. Horatio said to the community leaders that the children should be taken care of now not later, its about doing it today. When I set off on this journey a month ago with my good friend Mike we told ourselves to take it one day at a time, to be in the now, to not think about tomorrow or Mexico or San Francisco but to think about today. This was and still is a slogan of the trip. When Horatio said that his words really spoke to me.

Community leaders looking on.

As the meeting was ending the people were coming up to me and thanking me for my support. They were so exciting and happy to have a visitor. Because there community is so remote they never get any visitors. One women gave me a long hand shake, looked me in the eyes and blessed me. She said that God was watching and will help me on my journey and that she was happy to meet me.

It was all an unforgettable experience...



Regina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Regina said...

Hi, Aaron. I'm a friend of Mike's and I've spent the last couple of weeks reading both of your blogs. This entry really touched my heart; its putting things into perspective for me. Thank you so much for what you're doing and for sharing your experiences. I'm really enjoying reading about it all!