Saturday, July 21, 2007

Water and Electricity... Essential to our Lives

As I sit writing this message, we have electricity but no running water. You see, these two basic services that we very much take for granted in Canada, are luxuries in a country like Nicaragua. What is most difficult is the lack of water and coping mechanisms need to be taken. For example, water in my house is generally available from 8:00 PM (but it can start as late as 11:00 PM) to 10:00 AM (but can be shut off as early as 7:30 AM as it was this morning). This poses obvious challenges such as no water to bathe, to clean dishes, to cook or to drink. So, coping mechanism as having bottled water to cook and drink as well as storing water in large vats such as plastic garbage cans becomes an indispensable item of life here.

For electricity, it is most missed from 6:00 PM when the sun sets to 10:00 PM when you typically go to sleep (no late nighters here as the roosters, birds, parrots, dogs seem to get up like clock work at 5:30 AM every morning). Fortunately for me, the lack of electricity in the crucial evening timeslots has only occurred 4 times but it was felt and made life difficult for everyone. Mostly, it is the productivity at work that gets challenged. For example, our office has electricity shortages daily from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM. This means that people work from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM and then go home (they would usually stay till 5:00 PM). This has had an impact on productivity and expectations of timelines have had to be relaxed (even further than you would in a Latin American country).

This blog was not written to complain because I realize that so many people around the developing world live with this constant reality of poor government infrastructure and planning, lack of funds to fix the problem and issues with water quantity and quality. No, this blog was mostly written to initiate the discussion on how we can sensibilize ourselves to the reality outside our shielded lives in Canada. I am a hypocrite because I long for constant water, for electricity to work without problems, for proper roads and sewage systems, for clean streets. However, I know that these are luxuries, not essentials as we have been led to believe. We are lucky to live where we do and let's never forget that. We should help others in their struggles but in a sustainable way. Only through this means can everyone live a comfortable life while insuring a future for our children.

Monday, July 16, 2007

From Costa Rica with Love

Well, having no plans for the weekend and always in search of a little adventure, I decided to accompany Wendy on a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica in light of her illegal, alien status in Nicaragua (her visa had expired and a huge fine of US$1 per day was being imposed on her). Fortunately, we were able to take Friday off. Waking up way too early, I rolled out of bed at 5:30 AM on Friday, grabbed a taxi and explained him our route from my house, to Wendy’s place and then to the bus station and arrived around 6:30 AM. The bus was scheduled to depart at 7:30 AM but since we had no reserved seating, we had to wait until 6:45 AM to find out if we could go to Costa Rica. Thankfully, there were a few seats available and we started our trip.

The bus was comfortable, air-conditioned and we even got to see corny American flicks like Little Man. Everything went by seamlessly until we got to the Pena Blanca border crossing (i.e. refugee camp crossing). Amidst this confusing area of border crossing, order reigns over chaos. But it does take time for you to figure out which line is for food, which line for the bank and which line for the passport control (not kidding). Finally finding the right line, we slowly moved up into the chaotic yet efficient border control (quick look at the passport, picture, whether we had any rejected visas and bam! You are stamped and on your way). It only took an hour and 15 minutes to get there but are they ever efficient once you do get your stamp.

We continued on our way until we got to Liberia which has a bus station but in which you get dropped off at the outskirts of the city. Near a gas station. Totally confused as to our whereabouts. After asking many questions to different people, we figured out the bus to playa Coco (our final destination) was across the street of a very busy intersection. We saw the hourly bus go by… without stopping because it was full to the brink (people leaning out of the window). I’ve rarely seen anything quite like it, even in Nicaragua. We lowered our shoulders a notch and then thought it would be smart to get some money out to take a taxi to Playa Coco. So, Wendy put in her bank card only to have the transaction rejected and the machine eat her card. She waited more than an hour to retrieve it while I went out looking for the bus station to reserve our seats on the way back (no reservation, no taking the bus). Unfortunately for us, I was heading in the wrong direction (forgot my campus again). So, Wendy got her card back, I took out money from a different bank and after spending $25 to get to playa coco by taxi, we made it safely to our hotel. We were so happy to be here and not stranded on the road. We decided to take a quick dip in the ocean. It looked so pretty.

The water was so nice and warm until… Ohh! What was that? It felt like a bee stung me. But what could it be? There were millions of mini jelly fish in the water. And there were fish nibbling on my legs (very unnerving). We quickly got out when the small stinging sensation got too irritating. We walked to the main part of the village, found an over-priced restaurant and had a remarkably great meal. We decided to call the bus station tomorrow to see if we could book places on the Sunday bus back to Managua. After calling about 5-6 different numbers to contact someone (you see, they are working and they are there but they have decided not to answer any phone calls… Costa Rica bus services are not known for their great customer service). Wendy and I made an executive decision to strand our local, jelly-fish infested paradise for a night in the Liberian-border town. We made our way back and found the bus station. I used landmarks to make my way to the bus station conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. Before we were served, another lady began crying and saying this couldn’t be true. We knew we were in for bad news. There were no seats available until next Tuesday, late! But we needed to get back to Managua for Sunday night. We decided to go the more expensive route and take a taxi to the border the next day… And then, it started raining and didn’t let up until the next day.

Because of the stressful day I was envisioning on Sunday, I couldn’t sleep which didn’t help me one bit. I eventually fell asleep only to wake up too early and realize we needed to start our crazy trip back. We found a taxi and made our way to the border. We had to cross the border this time without the helpful international buses that shielded a lot of the chaos from us. We walked the one km zone that separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica after going through the two border controls. It only took us one hour and a half this time, beating the previous two and a half hours of the time coming in, so an improvement of sorts. We made our way through the thick of taxi drivers, helpful Nicas trying to sell us everything under the sun, until we got to the Managua express bus. Oh, how I missed the Nica express buses. Always there to serve, without reservations and oh, so very cheap. We made the 150km trip in about 2 and a half hour which is very fast by Nica standards. I made it to my bed by 2:00 PM and slept a solid 2 hours and felt funny (my stomach was hurting). And there you have it, folks, the weekend trip from hell and back. It could always be worst and if I didn’t have horror stories, I would have nothing to tell, right?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

How does one cope with daily rolling blackouts?

Two weeks ago, Nicaragua passed an infamous record: the largest one-day shortage of electricity in its history. Three of its plants went down reducing the electricity capacity by 174 MW (with average daily demand at 480 MW, that’s a little over a third of the demand). With neighbours in Costa Rica having similar problems and Panama and Guatemala who typically have excess capacity not able to lend a helping hand, this has resulted in rolling blackouts throughout neighbourhoods in Nicaragua for up to 10-12 hours per day.

Unfortunately, this was not just a one-day occurrence. The Ortega government was elected on three principal platforms: (1) peace and reconciliation from the 1980’s contra wars; (2) solving the growing poverty and inequality problem in Nicaragua; (3) solving the electricity and water shortages that have plagued recent governments.

Unfortunately, it has been unsuccessful in most of its efforts resulting in the government’s popularity to plunge in four short months from +60% approval to -10% disapproval.
However, one may wonder how one survives in a black-out prone country. For example, what happens to food in fridges (or in supermarkets) when the fridges don’t work on a consistent basis (especially in tropical weather like here)? How does one work especially in this day and age of electronic communication and information gathering as well as a dependence on computers to complete most work? How can one sleep, cook and eat when microwaves, electricity appliances, often water (because it relies on electric pumps) and without fans or air conditioning? The answers to these fascinating questions I have to live with everyday… but then again, I’m gone at the end of July. What saddens me is that there seems to be no end in sight to bad infrastructures, name-calling by private electricity companies and the government and short-term solutions to the detriment to long-term thinking and envisioning.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Serge and Jessica's excellent adventures in Central America

I was able to not check my e-mail for seven days which was such a relief. However, the ability to get continuous Internet access at work also meant that I was now all alone in Nicaragua and that the last two amazing weeks with Jessica were over. We both shed tears as Jess boarded her flight this morning to Miami and then to Toronto and I slowly realized that I was still very much in Nicaragua for the next five weeks as I try to complete my demanding work term. But that's enough about today's morose reality. Let’s reflect and savour the memories.

Jessica arrived on Friday, June 15th at the Managua International Airport. I was waiting there for her alongside my adopted brother, Oscar. We saw her but she looked anxious and couldn’t seem to find her piece of luggage. Unfortunately, it had not made the connection so we were told to come back the next day to hopefully retrieve (which we later did). We went to Pochomil on Saturday with Wendy, my friend and colleague from work, along with her two cousins that arrived that same day. We had a wonderful time at the beach while eating fried fish and shrimp. I was the designated driver and drove through villages and mountains trying to avoid the free range dogs, sheep’s, chickens, pigs, horses, cows as well as free range kids, bicyclists and old people as they strolled in the middle of the road. Didn’t hit anything and we made it back safely.

Sunday was spent travelling to Isla de Ometepe where our kind guide, Daniel Jaminez was waiting for us. We spent our first night in Charco Verde and Jess and I had the opportunity to go on a nature hike, find a secluded beach with very warm water and swim while looking up to the islands two volcanoes, Conception and Madera. The next day, Jess and I hiked up to see the San Ramos waterfalls while Wendy and her cousins did quite a big hike up to the top of the Madera volcano. On Tuesday, Jess and I parted ways with Wendy and her cousins and we spent the day in Granada, admiring the unique Spanish colonial architecture of the oldest continuous European settlement in the Americas. We then took an hour and a half boat ride along the Granada islets and dreamed of living in one of these huge houses. We even got to befriend some monkeys on the isla de monos (monkey island). I had to return to work the next day only to find out that Nicaragua was undergoing huge electricity problems resulting in rolling black-outs of eight hours or more. We tried to work from the nearest mall (as they had free WI-FI access) but eventually gave up and went to see Shrek Three, ate a good meal and relaxed.

Thursday was spent in Masaya, the headquarters for much of the Nicaragua art and crafts talent. We went through the traditional and old market and found some very good deals on quality pottery, hammocks, wood carvings and paintings. As we admired our purchases and sat in a local cafĂ© enjoying our coffee, we looked at life go by for a little while. On Friday, we made our way to our weekend destination which was La Conchia or the village of San Juan del Oriente. The British owner of the Spanish School I attend in Managua has built an impressive eco-lodge along with plenty of animals, an amazing garden, solar panels and a solar water heater (resulting in my first warm shower in Nicaragua). We ate great food and visited the Mombacho Volcano on Saturday located amongst the cloud forest. We were able to do a hike up there and admire the amazing foliage and wildlife. We also made it out to a much different volcano in Masaya where there are plumes of Sulphuric smoke still coming out. After burning our eyes and lungs a bit, we made it back for some more great food at the hotel. On Sunday, we finished our journey in Nicaragua by swimming in the most amazing lagoon called Apoyo Lagune near Masaya. It was clean and warm and very sunny so we spent a good part of the afternoon swimming with Giamina, the eco-lodge’s daughter while our driver sat and relaxed while reading the newspaper.

Monday, June 25th saw the second part of our trip commence. We boarded our flight to Costa Rica, a bit anxious because all indications was that Costa Rica was not nearly as nice as Nicaragua. After driving around in circles with our rented 4x4 for the first few hours, we eventually found our hotel in Alajuela and had a great meal because getting a much deserved rest. The next day, we left early and drove to Monteverde and its treacherous 30 km of unpaved, pot-holed and narrow roads up 1000 metres to the village of Santa Elena. We found a hotel and took a night walk that same evening seeing tarantula spiders, black widow spiders, a silver fox, a family of racoons, a porcupine and a sloth and its baby. We saw countless types of insects I won’t start to name. The next day, we did what we came to Monteverde to do: a 18 platform canopy tour with the Selvatura company. It was worth every dollar as we both had a great time. Jess was the only woman who tried the Tarzan swing (a few men decided not to do it). Jess doesn’t look like the bravest person but she sure is! Actually, that same day, she tried to fight her irrational and debilitating fear of snakes… so we visited the Serpentarium and viewed 40 different types of snakes. Towards the end of the night, as I was holding a baby boa constructor, she stroked its skin three times. Last time I saw Jess in front of a snake she was shaking vigorously and had turned white as a statue. Huge steps here!

The final leg of our journey was to drive a snail-like pace from Monteverde to the Caribbean coast to spend a couple days near Cahuita Park, 40 km south of Limon. After spending countless hours behind 18-wheelers, we finally made it. Cahuita was very quiet and very much a reggae-based culture. There was a groove about the village which we didn’t miss. Unfortunately, it was also the rainy season meaning there were long bouts of rain and the humidity went through all our clothes. We did get to do a great hike and took some pretty cool pictures in the Cahuita park. We drove back to our base camp in Alajuela and readied ourselves for our departure on Sunday back to Nicaragua. This brings us back to today, Monday, July 2nd, the date of Jessica’s departure. So, as I sit back and reflect on our trip, I can only say that I have thoroughly enjoyed spending so much time with Jessica in a really interesting and hospitable part of the world.

To view pictures of our trip, click here.