Six years ago this month, a life-changing trip

IMG_0278
On assignment in rural Nicaragua…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We’re fortunate indeed to ever have a truly life-changing experience — in a good way!

Six years ago, I did, flying from my home in New York to Atlanta and there boarding a three-hour flight to Managua, capital of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — Nicaragua — after Haiti.

If you’ve never visited or lived in a developing country, especially one reached so quickly, it’s a huge shock.

The air just feels different.

It smells different — of mildew and roast meat and undefined vegetation. Bird calls are unfamiliar.

Horse-drawn carts clop along the streets of the capital.

That $15 you just blew for a sandwich and a drink at the Atlanta airport takes on a whole new meaning when

Nicaraguans’ annual per capita income is just over $2,000.

 

IMG_0372
Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

 

photo(34)
Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi — and back!

 

 

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

I went there with WaterAid America, hired and well paid to produce three feature stories about their work, joining a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational and multi-talented team: a blogger from Maine, Jennifer Iacovelli; the WaterAid communications person, Alannah Imbach, and photographer Rodrigo Cruz from Mexico, even from the very city I’d lived in at 14, Cuernavaca.

We had never met before.

We had no idea if we would. work well together or even like one another.

But we did and we did.

We even had such a powerful experience that, when we said goodbye in Managua to the country director, fellow Canadian Joshua Briemberg (a dead ringer for Hagrid!) he cautioned: “No tears!”

What an adventure!

To reach the coastal town of Bilwi, we rode the tiniest commercial aircraft I’d been in so far — they weighed us, not just our bags!

The van we traveled in for hours every day often needed a push. The heat was intense and we were working hard, 12 hours a day, seeking shade wherever we could find it. The van was stocked with plenty of ice water, and we needed it!

 

photo(40)
Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

 

The goal there was to teach locals how to build their own toilets and wells.

Until you’ve been in a country where you sweat all day every day — and access to running water is a luxury — you can’t imagine it.

One of my favorite memories, when we visited a village without electricity and running water, sleeping on cots under mosquito nets, was bathing at dusk while trying to pump enough water from the well.

A cow stood nearby.

Just as I finally took off my sports bra…a little boy on a bicycle rode past.

We worked in Spanish, which I speak, and the area’s regional language — Miskito — for which we had translators.

 

IMG_0135
LInda’s home, where we slept w/o electricity on cots under mosquito nets

 

Food was whatever was available, sometimes cooked over indoor wood fires.

The wooden house we stayed overnight in one night was typical — smooth, shiny, spotless wooden floors, painted a bright color, with open windows, and on stilts, allowing storage, shade and room for animals below.

Their turkey (!) followed us through the woods to the river, gobbling happily, until Jen and I got into a dugout canoe there, a first for both of us! Good thing this Canadian knew how to paddle a canoe!

Our seats?

Our host’s mother whipped out her machete (!) and sliced two nearby stalks of bamboo on an angle — boom, seats!

As you can imagine, the week was filled with revelations and kindness, new experiences and the joy of doing some good work in a team of fabulous, easy-going professionals. No one whined!

In the years since, Jen has stayed in Maine doing non-profit work and Alannah now lives in her native Washington State, running Vibe, a gorgeous co-working space she designed with her Swiss husband, Marcel. And they have lovely twin daughters, Noemi and Chiara.

We are still in touch and I’ll forever be so so so grateful for their trust in me and my skills, allowing me to learn so much so quickly.

 

Have you had an experience that changed you or your worldview?

 

 

A life-changing week — without easy access to water

By Caitlin Kelly

In a good way!

IMG_0278
On assignment in rural Nicaragua…

Two years ago this month, I was returning home to our apartment in suburban New York from a week that radically altered my views on work, on luxury, on life.

With a multi-media team — a photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico (where I lived as a 14-year-0ld), a blogger from Brunswick, Maine and a communications officer from New York — I spent a week working with WaterAid in Nicaragua, a country I had never been to before.

On paper, the whole thing sounded a bit crazy, putting together a team of people ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who had never met or worked together, and jamming us into a rickety van we needed to push occasionally to work 12-hour days in 95-degree heat.

 

Best week of my life.

I had gotten to know the comm’s person, Alanna, and knew she was fun, smart and warm. That was enough for me, so whoever else she had chosen would be fine. And they were. We had many hours together, traveling in a very small plane (so small they weighed each of us, not just our baggage!) and by van.

BjNjO8HCMAAIbpC
Our WaterAid team

We met up in Managua, a three-hour flight from Atlanta. We flew from there to Bilwi, a town on the eastern coast, of 40,000 people.

We quickly learned that our hotel’s showers and toilets and sinks with running water were a rare luxury there — that almost half the population had none of these things. They had a pipe in their front yard with water supplied by the city, if they had it at all. Or they walked a mile or more to the nearest well.

It was really hot, about 90 degrees every day all day. When you sweat that much, you need to drink a lot of water and you really want to bathe and clean off at day’s end. Now, I realized, these were luxuries I had taken for granted for decades. My whole life.

We drove into the countryside, a two-hour journey each way, to watch local villagers building their own toilets and sanitation projects so I could write about them for WaterAid and Rodrigo could make photos and videos. Jen and I did a Twitterchat later in the week to explain what we were seeing; it gathered a staggering response.

photo(40)
Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid; Jen beside me, Dixie in the background

To conduct interviews, we worked in Spanish and in Miskitu, for which we had a translator, a local academic with the delightful name of Dixie. Tall, gentle, Dixie was our right hand.

One night we all stayed in the home of one of the women we were writing about, Linda. The house was all made of wood, with a corrugated tin roof and wide open windows, without glass but with curtains. The floors were soft and smooth beneath our bare feet, meticulously clean and free of insects.

 

IMG_0135
Linda’s home

We brought our own food, which Linda and her family cooked for us on their clay stove. Their home has no electricity or running water, so they cooked by the light of flashlights and headlamps.

We slept together in one large room on narrow cots with sleeping bags and mosquito nets, lulled to sleep by the sound of someone speaking in Spanish from the transistor radio hanging from a very large nail on the balcony.

In the morning, Jen and I traveled with Linda and her mother in law and her daughter across a river to collect vegetables from their plot there. We walked through the forest to reach the river, followed the whole way by a very large, very friendly and very determined turkey, one of the many animals living beneath their home.

IMG_0292(1)
Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

As we reached the river’s edge, Linda’s mother in law, wielding a very sharp long machete casually reached behind herself, lopped off two lengths of bamboo, cut their ends at an angle and dropped them into the wooden dugout canoe for us — seats!

We were accepted without demands or interrogation. Welcomed into their home and treated as guests with kindness and respect. For most of us, there are few moments in life when you connect across culture, language, nationality, age, education. They are deeply moving. Unforgettable.

 

On both side of the river, we climbed steep sandy banks to reach the vegetable crops. By the time we returned to the house, the sun was so hot that I feared heatstroke, heading to the well to throw buckets of water over me.

The time we spent in Nicaragua — working as a team, meeting and interviewing and getting to know some of the local people — also could not have been a greater contrast to my work at home in New York.

It was a week of easy cooperation (not relentless competition.) Open-heartedness and kindness (not resentful close-fistedness.) Bottles of ice-cold water and comfortable beds to keep us going, comfortably (not the standard annoyance of being ignored or rejected by busy editors.)

And what joy to be part of a team of smart, passionate, funny and warm professionals. I work alone at home, and have done so for a decade. This was a great break from isolation and total self-reliance.

IMG_0269

 

When we parted ways in Managua, we were teary. Two years later, Jen and and Alanna and I remain friends, in close contact still. Their country director, a fellow Canadian named Josh, came all the way out to our home to visit when he came up to New York.

I cried several times over this experience, which shocked me — I never cry.

But what I saw and felt there deeply touched me, both the ridiculous contrast between our easy life here and the penury we saw in Nicaragua. And also for the kindness and camaraderie I felt that week.

Journalism is very often a brutish business and its people too often gruff and dismissive, no matter what level of experience or skill you offer. They rarely praise or thank. They fight you over every penny you need to earn or to do the job well, and more than 24,000 of us have been fired or laid off in recent years.

To be treated as…valuable? Enjoyable? That was a blessedly unfamiliar feeling.

I now look for different kinds of work and deeper relationships with people whose values I admire.

I also turn off the water when I brush my teeth.

650 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.

Imagine being one of them.

 

 

Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van
Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

IMG_0331

I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

IMG_0278

 

Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!
Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!
Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

IMG_0360

 

I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi
Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

IMG_0320

Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

IMG_0323

Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

IMG_0346

 

Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

IMG_0377

Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

IMG_0269

Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

IMG_0414

The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it
This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women — 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

IMG_0253

Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

IMG_0376

We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

IMG_0379

As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.
The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

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.

photo(35)

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!

Off to Nicaragua with WaterAid!

By Caitlin Kelly

20130729134103

The left shoulder got the polio shot, the right one got the hepatitis shot. I took my typhus vaccine orally, four pills over eight days, which made my head feel like a block of cement.

Next up, Malarone, for malaria.

malariapills

I leave today from my home in New York to fly to Atlanta, then on to Managua. Tomorrow morning, we fly in a plane so small we all have to get weighed, 90 minutes northeast to Puerto Cabezas, on the Caribbean coast, our headquarters for the week.

data=VLHX1wd2Cgu8wR6jwyh-km8JBWAkEzU4,doEczID_l5zb8x3JzMliZQeFjtbjoa0YaIcx5k2OahqhCKRyTarrXFK-Nr_Ag9YHvDBnnEXEHP_TlSQHcbWR2dClM4hNW47rQXxgancnxvefJTqySvCI0NP0vlSTQwzEPULJsRyM1pdPXw4VqKUdRtdXMEXBSbGbntuxkn7DT3IckiA0

From there, we’ll travel two hours inland to visit villages where WaterAid, a British-based charity, is helping to create better sanitation. The team includes Jennifer Barbour, a blogger from Maine, Rodrigo Cruz, a fellow freelancer, and photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and two WaterAid staff; Alanna Imbach, who invited me, is listed here.

Jennifer’s post about the trip offers a lot of great detail about the country.

My role on this journey is to report and interview locals and in-country staff about their experiences with WaterAid, then write stories for the group that they can use in any way they find useful — sending them to the media or to potential donors.

Eighty per cent of the inhabitants of this region have no access to clean water or toilets.

I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m excited and honored to be given the opportunity and challenge of making a remote and unfamiliar place, and the work they’re doing there, into compelling narratives.

But the fundamentals of reporting remain constant:

listen, ask thoughtful questions, watch carefully, behave with cultural sensitivity in dress and demeanor, take photos for later reference, soak up the atmosphere so a reader thousands of miles away feels like they’re sitting beside us…

The other remote places I’ve previously been? Rural Kenya, Tanzania and an Arctic village of 500 near the Arctic circle, Salluit, Quebec — all in my late 20s, a few decades ago.

Alanna has warned us that the poverty we’ll see is quite devastating, and will likely affect us emotionally.

I speak Spanish but we’ll mostly rely on interpreters into the local language, Miskitu.

I’ve never been to Nicaragua before but was lucky enough to know a guy in Colorado who writes its guidebooks and referred to me a young woman in-country who gave me ace advice.

This will be the 38th country I’ve been to (so far!)

It’s a working trip, with long days; our one free day is the last one, in Managua.

I’ll be blogging from there, with images, so I hope you enjoy the journey.