Nicaragua, Days One and Two: Coconuts, Wells and a 16 Year Old GC

By Caitlin Kelly

It began with a flight from Atlanta to Managua — that was turned back 40 minutes in for mechanical problems, circled for 60 minutes in turbulence to burn off fuel — and had everyone rush into a waiting aircraft to get going, fast, before the Managua airport shut down for the night at midnight. We arrived at 12:30 and got four hours’ sleep because we had to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, a town of about 40,000 on the edge of the Caribbean.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arricving.
Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving.

Our team: Mexican photographer Rodrigo, Maine mom blogger Jennifer, media director Alanna and I crammed into a plane with 12 seats. After 90 minutes we arrived, met by Josh, the Vancouver-born country director, and a borrowed van — that wouldn’t start until it was pushed.

Within an hour, we were all off and running in 95 degree heat, driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet. Our destination? A house whose 48-year-old owners had decided would finally have a toilet, and we were going to watch them digging the trenches and drilling the gray PVC pipe that will serve as drainage.

Our journey took — to go 40 miles — about two hours, and included crossing the Wawa River on a barge. The road was jammed with chickens and pigs and dogs and small children. Cooks boiled food in pots on charcoal braziers. Enormous colored buses pulled up with men sitting on the roof.

We visited a primary school, where the boys were learning Spanish homonyms.


The landscape changed, from scrubby low pines in sandy soil, to lush green hills. The house where we stopped was painted wood, as most are here, and on stilts, with lemon and mango trees on the hill. We watched the team working, spoke to them and to the family, then drank fresh coconut milk from the nuts on their tree, hacked open with a machete.

The rooster finishing my coconut
The rooster finishing my coconut

It’s very hot here, at sea level with the Caribbean ocean nearby — about 95 degrees during the day, dropping to about 82 after the sun sets at 5:45.

Much of our work interviewing and photographing people means we’re standing around outside in the sunshine for a few hours, sweating buckets.

By noon, my hair and clothes are drenched and dripping with perspiration so I cover my head, pirate-style with a kerchief. It looks a little goofy, but it works, keeping the sweat from my eyes and face; my notebook today at noon was so sweaty I couldn’t even use some of the paper.

We drink a lot of water! I also brought a bag of peppermint Lifesavers, which offers everyone a nice blast of sweetness and flavor in noonday heat.

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi -- it has AC!
Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi — it has AC!

On Tuesday we met and interviewed Cora, a 16-year-old girl who’s acting as GC — a general contractor — building a bathroom for a local man whose house is under construction. Cora is a high-school dropout who WaterAid is helping, (the group sponsoring my trip), teach technical and life skills.

It was amazing to see her self-confidence supervising her team of four male workers. Like any 16-year-old, she wore a sparkly butterfly hair clip, tight blue jeans and a red cellphone she likes to check.

We visited an extremely poor neighborhood near the beach; that’s saying a lot in a place where poverty is endemic, where 0nly 20 percent of Bilwi’s residents have access to running water or any form of toilet in their home.

There we saw a community well and spoke to Nelisha, a shy, freckled 12-year-old living down the street in a bright green wooden house — who used to carry two heavy buckets of water every morning and night for a mile. Now she only carries them about a two-minute walk.

When you’re reporting in the field, the best thing you can do is get away from the official story, in this case, the well we had come to admire.

Jennifer and I wandered a block away toward the beach, where we found a long row of wooden latrines — their sewage emptying into a ditch barely 100 feet from the ocean. This was no tourist beach. This was squalid, dirty and unhealthy.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break
Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

We ate lunch together at a local restaurant, then drove to Cora’s home to see how she lives.

We walked up a slight incline, red dust clogged with fallen palm leaves and coconuts, the walkway shaded by leaning palm trees. On either side were wooden houses on stilts, some patched with corrugated metal, some raw wood.

Her house is barely a few yards from a chain-link fence, the outer perimeter of the Bilwi airport.

Cora has lived here her whole life and shares her home — 15 by 20 feet, wood, no windows — with eight others, including three children, her nieces, ages 1, 3 and six. They have no running water or toilet. To get drinking water, they turn on a white plastic faucet in their small dirt yard.

But, despite the scorching heat and the thirst of a large family, it offers nothing, as the city only opens its taps a few hours a day, and not every day.

Their well, which her father dug, sits about 20 feet from their house’s open doorway. It has no cover or railing and is about 50 feet deep.

Easy for a tiny child to fall into — which apparently one or two a year do.

We have been here only two days, a group of people who were strangers to one another before that. It’s quite astonishing to join yet another five or six people — translators, staff, driver — and meld into a working, laughing, van-pushing unit.

Tomorrow we head into the countryside where we’ll spend two days, sleeping overnight in a village, using mosquito nets. There will be no electricity.

Imagine the stars!

20 thoughts on “Nicaragua, Days One and Two: Coconuts, Wells and a 16 Year Old GC

  1. So many gritty details. I so appreciate how you turn to the gut level, human experience that relates to clean water. It tells the story better than the remove of reporting on a well. The people capture our hearts: the young woman who’s a GC and the extended family under one roof with a plastic yard faucet that only runs when the gov’t allows it. Thank you for telling their stories, so well.

    1. Thanks for making time to read it. The impact of meeting people living this way is very powerful. Some of our best moments here, and resulting images and interviews have been completely spontaneous. I’m moved by how open people are to speaking to us, esp. young people.

      When I’m home and have a lot more time to post (we have very little), I’ll do a photo-heavy post next week.

  2. Love these descriptions, Caitlin. I can feel your adrenaline and wonder in every word and picture. Such colors too. Can only imagine how overwhelming it all is to the senses, especially after such a harsh winter in NY! Thanks for sharing your journey with us so vividly. I’m so glad they hired you to capture this important work!

    1. Thanks, Niva! Jennifer and I are swimming in a sea of color, heat, data, interviews…and holding back for now on our emotions. It’s very emotional, though.

      Josh said something at dinner tonight that was interesting — he talked about “social poverty” — how much more bearable it is when everyone is in the same difficult boat. He sees that here; having Josh and Dixie helps us make sense of it. But it’s overwhelming in some ways as well.

      Tomorrow morning we head out into the village, our last chance to be in the countryside.

      1. Yes, I can imagine how emotional it is, and relate to how difficult it is to keep those emotions in check. When I directed SKID ROW, a documentary about homelessness several years ago, we spent weeks getting to know folks living on the streets of Los Angeles, each with a different reason for ending up there. Some incredibly heartbreaking stories. We wanted to help every person we met, but we couldn’t. I think you have to keep reminding yourself that your work is how you’re helping, by telling their stories and letting the world know this situation (still) exists.

        Hope you’re having a good experience in the village today. Can’t wait to hear more about it!

  3. Wow, it is fascinating to read about your experience. It sounds so different there compared to what I saw in the slums of Delhi. I had visited one of WaterAid’s sites but it seems like it had much more clean water and sanitation than where you are. It was 120 degree every day we were there. Just insanely hot but somehow we managed. Keep the stories coming! Amazing!

    1. Thanks!

      At 95 degrees, it’s plenty hot enough when you’re trying to focus on work…

      WaterAid has been here for three years…maybe the Delhi operation is longer established?

      1. Sounds like a fascinating experience! I’m not sure on the Delhi operation but I imagine it has been longer than three years. You can ask Alanna as she would probably know better than me. We were mostly looking at the COmmunity Toilets there. They would set them up in the slums and also offer showers. Water came in via truck daily and the women would fill their buckets.

  4. Lets start with the flight…I can only imagine what you must have been feeling. Then the heat. So cold all winter and then WHAM! But what an amazing experience you must be having. I love that a 16 yr old has been empowered to take on a job like that. Can’t wait to hear more stories.

    1. Kathleen I sure thought of you…and our mutual loathing of turbulence…let alone turbulence we HAD to remain in just to burn up excess fuel. I yelped so loudly that the teens next to me snickered. I gave them the death stare in return.

      Thank heaven the second attempt was 2/3 smooth (3 hr 15 m flight.) Ironically, the tiny prop plane flight was by far the smoothest.

      I have one hell of a sunburn today on my neck. Looks very weird. It’s a lot to take in, absorb and try to make lucid sense of. But the people I’m working with and meeting are quite fantastic, so there is much less stress than I expected. The heat is not that big a deal when we are able to shower later.

  5. glad you made it there after a rough beginning. it sounds like there is so much to process, but that it is rich with color and people and all of the amazing details you’ve shared. this sounds like an amazing trip, even from the first moment. it will surely change you and teach you in some profound way. i look forward to reading/seeing more –

    1. Thanks…all true! We were told this would affect us emotionally and it’s hard not to become emotional in the face of such widespread, dire poverty. Yet people are kind and welcoming to us.

      I think you’d have to be made of stone to not be deeply affected and changed by a place like this and the people we are working with. It’s an amazing group.

      You would enjoy this — Alanna has two “Flat Stanleys”, one from a school in Chicago and one from…somewhere else…dolls of paper she places and photographs as we move about, as a teaching tool for the students. She keeps them in a Ziploc.

  6. Bless you and the WaterAid group! As I read, “driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet.” all I could think about was a similar journey from Baku to Tbilisi- 350 miles of non-engineered gravel/asphalt roller coaster. All I could do was smile and think of those two special words… sports bras! 😉 Be well and treasure your bottled water!

  7. themodernidiot

    “van-pushing unit” nice wrap up, good tie-back. Love the cliffhanger ending: “Tune in tomorrow to see if Caitlyn will find a charge-point for her Mac Book, or if she’ll be forced to rig a makeshift generator using two-coconuts and a hair clip (cue ominous music).”

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