Wednesday 8 January 2014

ICS Raleigh International: 13X Charlie Uno Week 6 to 10

This blogpost is an account of week 6 to week 10 (part 2) of my voluntary placement in Nicaragua with Raleigh International ICS, 30th September to 9th December 2013.

Week 6 

  • Produced and repaired 33 vegetable plots collectively as a team (2 a day, per mini team).
  • A Film night was run by the Youth Group. 
  • We hosted a Healthy Eating Community Action Day.
  • A environmental School group session and Women's Group meeting. 
  • A Trip to Achuapa to print reports. 
        (Blue: Volunteer Duties, Red: Activities with the community, Green: Team Activities)

It's Sunday 10th November and Naomi, Yamil and I are lounging in a bed together with hero-cat nestled between us. It's our only day off for the week and we embrace the relaxed pace morning with a lazy lie in.   

Our 'Healthy Eating' community action day was scheduled for 2:00pm in the afternoon, however the attendance numbers were marred by the heavy and relentless monsoon rainfall. The torrent of water drenched our community regularly, creating grey and hazy afternoons. 

We decided to carry out the action day across the course of a few days. Overall, we had around forty attendees to our event. The action day was for raising awareness of the health benefits of vegetables. We designed information posters and we drew inspiration from reusing waste such as plastic water-bottle plant growers and wind chimes from discarded metal. 

It's the start of a long and strenuous week of constructing vegetable plots. We are trained on how to prepare them, the ideal location, the dimensions and how to construct plots on slated land. Laxmi and Diabelis distributed the workload of 33 vegetable plots across the course of the week and we tackled 4 - 5 plots per mini team. 

Mini team: Me, Ben, Chama and Ana. 
Lugging big, heavy bags of compost/fertilizer! 

It's a wonderful feeling working with the families, next to their houses. We see the results of our work straight away and most of the vegetable plots only took a few hours to complete. We are also treated to a random array of refreshments throughout the course of the week by the different families we built plots for. From freshly made lemon grass tea to coffee to tortilla with beans, each occurrence demonstrated genuine Nicaraguan hospitality. After finishing each plot, we handed the families an assortment of seeds (provided by the co-operative) for planting fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, onions and pepinos. 

A day before changeover, Mark, Karen and I embark to Achuapa in order to print reports. It's a beautiful and scenic walk. The river reflects the deep blue sky and the surrounding hills and mountains are a vivid, flourishing green. We caught a glimpse of the national bird of Nicaragua, a brightly multicoloured motmot. 

Week 7

  • A 2 -  3 day changeover reunion at Jinotega.
  • House to house survey for eco-ovens across all five sectors.
  • Eco oven construction.
  • Hosted a Women's Group meeting and a Youth English lesson. 
  • ICS Staff and Ross & Dan from Raleigh visit El Cacao.
  • A Weekend break to visit Charlie dos in their community, Las Tablas.
(Purple: Changeover, Blue: Volunteer Duties, Green: Team Activities)

2nd Changeover

It's a long, bumpy and mountainous drive up to Jinotega in Northern Nicaragua! We weave through the green, rolling mountains, driving through wisps of cloud to over a thousand metres in elevation.  We total over eight hours on the bus. The air is noticeably cooler and we shiver as we disembark at the hotel, all of us a little dishevelled from the long journey. It's 15 - 18 degrees here, half of what we are used to in El Cacao! 
The drive up to Jinotega 
We wrap up the evening with six different team video presentations,  a tasty meat dinner and a crackling bonfire.
Overall, the second changeover is relaxed paced and calming. Although I really enjoyed Esteli, there were a lot of set activities which I did find a little overwhelming after allour hard work in El Cacao. There was an air of tranquility in Jinotega, where we were given the free time to chat to our peers, unwind, and explore the local area. The hotel grounds had a lake with a small cascading waterfall, an extensive maze, and a nature hike through the forested valleys.  


The hotel Maze entrance 

Phase 3

Suitably invigorated after changeover, it dawns on us that are only 2.5 weeks left in El Cacao! There are a group of kids waiting for our arrival, sitting beneath the community tree. They greet us joyfully as our bus trundles in and we walk back together to our host houses.

The next day, we divide into small groups. We cover house to house surveys in order to produce a final list for the households who were interested in eco-ovens. We gave each family a list of materials they would need to provide for construction. All the ingredients were freely obtainable, for example buckets of water, sand, mud and horse poo!

As Mark and I are about to leave a house, Maylin, a lady who hosted Raleigh volunteers before, hands me a large bunch of small, sweet bananas on a stalk. At first, I tell her not to worry and to keep them (in bad spanish). She insists and hands them to me with a smile. I am completely taken back by her act of casual generosity, she only just met me! I thank her over and over, I love mini bananas and I contemplate of how I can reflect back her act of kindness. 

In the evening, Naomi was attacked by a scorpion! It was a horrible, terrifying moment where I couldn't quite comprehend the situation as it happened. It was a typical evening of antics in the house of five, with Naomi and Yamil play fighting in the living area. Yamil yells "don't move!" over and over. I could've cut the tension with a knife, I thought it was a cruel joke to begin with. Naomi was stood rooted to the spot, utterly unaware of the creature perched on her shoulder. Yamil slowly moves towards her, carefully pulling off the hoodie and dropping it to the floor. Jader, our host dad handles the situation, killing the scorpion with a shoe.
     Scorpion #2
I am terrified and completely shaken after the encounter, I can't begin to imagine how Naomi felt that evening with the scorpion clinging on her. We work out that the scorpion fell from the ceiling, into Naomi's hair then onto her shoulder. It was extremely lucky that it didn't sting her! We'd already had one previous scorpion attack in the house of five, with Yamil being stung on his leg by a pregnant scorpion on the bed. 
Scorpion #1

Over the next few days, we are trained on how to construct eco-ovens. We have a list of fourteen families to make eco-ovens for in the next 2 weeks. 

For the afternoon, Raleigh staff members came to visit our project. It's another classic Charlie 1 candlelit dinner with basil pasta and soft tortillas! Mark and I host the evening entertainment: a game of pictionary whereby one has to answer in their non-native language (English for the Nicaraguans and Spanish for the Brits!). We had some funny answers e.g. "horny" from Luke attempting to guess the Spanish word for kitchen.

A visit to Charlie dos, Las Tablas

We rise early and depart together at 6:30am for a 3 - 4 hour walk to Las Tablas. Upon reaching Achuapa, we stop at The Co-operative where we are given a tour of a organic sesame seed oil factory.

After lunch, it's a long, steep and taxing walk up a hill to Las Tablas. We all struggle in the heat, dragging our feet and rucksacks up a hill that inclined painfully steeply for the whole way.

We meet up with Charlie Dos, where we are given a list of items for a scavenger hunt! It's a great way to explore the community. We gather the items whilst traversing around the calm and serene community of Las Tablas, gathering bits and pieces such as an ear of corn, charcoal and Jamaican tea. 
We finish the evening with a film night together (The Internship). The night is spent camping out as a group in a primary school with a mish mash of soft, colourful sleeping bags laid out pell mell in a classroom. 

We left Las Tablas at 8:30am the following morning. We had free-time to explore the town of Achuapa, we ate chicken for lunch together (satisfying meat cravings!) & we went for a refreshing dip in the river on our way back to El Cacao.

Overall, it was a fun, varied and engaging weekend. It's the start of my 'weekly team leader' role tomorrow. As part of the ICS placement, we all have to lead and organise the team's work schedule for a week, working in pairs. 

Week 8 

  • Constructed and finished 14 eco-ovens (worked in mini teams).
  • End of project report writing and a Youth English Lesson. 
  • A team social: Facundo's bonfire.
  • A Youth cultural entertainment event. 
  • The last Charlie one team banquet.
(Blue: Volunteer Duties, Red: Activities with the community, Green: Team Activities)

Bricks for making Eco-ovens
Before constructing eco ovens, we had to make bricks with the materials gathered by the households. The bricks have to be made early on in the week, as they take 3 days to dry. 

I visited Maylin (the lady who gave me bananas) and I handed her a big pack of waffle biscuits as a thank you for her gift earlier on in the week. As Mark and I leave, her son rushes after us and hands me a guayaba, a sweet fruit that makes a delicious drink. I really, really wasn't expecting anything back, nevertheless it was another incredibly kind gesture from her. 
It's Kati's (a daughter of a host mum) birthday today as well. As I pass her house I give her a present I picked up in Jinotega: a disney colouring book with colouring pencils. I wanted to reflect back the generosity that I've experienced whilst staying in El Cacao.  

It's a terribly sad day today. There is a call from Raleigh HQ and Ana was told that her grandma was terminally ill in hospital. She left El Cacao that day to visit her grandparents. We've lived together for over a month and a half. With a team member missing, it felt like a gap in our family.

Making Eco-Ovens 

The following day, we divide into sub teams. We all went to different households to make bricks. Producing bricks involves:

  • Shoes off and plodding through the mud/sand/horse poo/water mixture in order to stir it up! 
  • Grabbing handfuls of the sloppy, mixed material and putting it in moulds in order to make bricks.
  • We get extremely dirty doing this! :)
Making bricks in Los Carbones

It's a lovely, relaxing evening. To my utter delight, Chloe's host mum gave me a strawberry pancake on a visit to her house! I love Chloe's host sister, Margely. She's the most affectionate child I'd ever come across, with a gentle, loving and caring persona. 
I spend the evening seated on the doorstep, staring out at the blanket of stars. Genedree's, my four year old host brother, fell asleep in my arms. I retire to bed early that night. 

The next day, Mark and I continue making bricks in the afternoon at Facundo's house. We make all the preparations for our team bonfire in the evening. We realise that Facundo's wife has gone above and beyond for hosting the bonfire. She slaughtered over three chickens to feed fifteen of us and insisted that we came for dinner too. I am both bewildered and utterly grateful for her generosity, feeding fifteen people is no easy feat!  

 The delicious meal Marianna (Facundo's Wife) cooked
 for us,one of the best meals I had in Nicaragua! 

Mark and I hide praise notes for everyone in our team. We decided that sometimes people felt a little underappreciated for all the work they did, thus the notes were a little morale booster. 
Throughout the evening, Facundo plays the accordion and the fire is crackling and glowing. Mark and I host the evenings entertainment: 'How well do you know Charlie Uno?'. We split the team into Brits and Latinos, and each group has to answer corresponding questions about the opposing team members. It was an incredibly memorable evening due to the hospitality of Facundo and his family. 

It was extremely windy that night and the house of five had an interrupted and erratic nights slumber. The tin roof was clashing and banging loudly throughout the night. We wake up the next morning to find a small hole in the roof of the house. 

As the day draws to a close, Kati turns up to my host home. I understand the word 'dinner', as she speaks to me rapidly and she asks me to come along. Kati has her auntie and her grandmother round! Laxmi, Diabelis, Mark, Chloe and I eat together with her family. We have fried plantain with a spicy tuna, onion and carrot salad with a slice of pineapple cake to finish with. Two delicious meals, two days in a row?!  What a treat! 

3 days later, the bricks have dried! Chama, Mark, Daibelis, Emma and I embark together to Los Carbones to build our first ec0-oven.

              Starting off with an empty base!

Eco-oven building involves the following:
-  Mix more mud/water/horse poo and sand together to form a gooey paste.
- Lay bricks in L shape and stack chimney bricks, with mud paste between each layer. 
- Install Metal hoops for the stove holes and metal stick supports.
- Eco Oven is done! No more smoky rooms and up to 70% less wood usage! :)

Our finished Eco-oven in a soon to be kitchen!
The lady was really happy with the work we did, and she thanked us gratefully, shaking our hands. The eco-oven was part of a new extension for her house and she's glad that she had the opportunity to have one. For the afternoon, a group of visiting youths from Los Hornos participated in a Culture event hosted by our youth group. Over 50 attendees came to the event where there was lots of singing, dancing and acting. There was a parody 'Raleigh volunteer' play and our point of contact, Nacho, sang beautifully with a guitar. 

The next day, it's eco-oven take 2! This time its just Naomi,  Mark and I getting mucky and building in El Pacon.

Our last team social for the week is a final Charlie One group dinner. We go all out of our way for this one! There was a feast of food! We brought beef and fish from local sellers. 
The beef, surprisingly soft and tender, was marinated with a fresh chilli and garlic sauce. 3kg of fish was pan fried with lemon and basil. The mains were accompanied by salty, garlic potato chips and stir fried carrots with shredded cabbage and I made fried strawberry pancakes. Not too shabby considering we cooked it all on a log fire eco oven! :). There was a warm, team ambience and it was a wonderfully satisfying end to a long week of eco-ovens. 

Week 9 

  • Constructed the last 2 eco ovens and built x2 eco latrines, one for the school and one for the community centre. 
  • We painted a large mural on the outside  of the community house with the help of PioresNada, a art group specialising in street art. 
  • Our Community Farewell party.
  • Genedree's 5th birthday party. 
  • A final Team Bonfire with Charlie 1 Awards.
(Blue: Volunteer Duties, Red: Activities with the community, Green: Team Activities)

It's dawned on us quickly, that it is our final week in El Cacao. I spend a productive Monday morning with Ana, Emma and Alnufo, constructing one of the final eco ovens for Tello, a local shop owner in the community. 
Tello is cooking near us. My eyes sting and I cough as I work. The kitchen is thick with cooking fumes and smoky oil.  I wonder what it must be like to be in this room, day after day, for local women who don't have eco-ovens to channel the smoke out...

Chimneys which carry the smoke out. 
We're about half way through the work and Tello beckons us over. We see him serving up sauteed pork, with tortilla and a side salad! My heart jumps with joy! Meat two days in a row!? We sit at a table outside and relish upon our unanticipated lunch. The pork is heavenly! We're also given cold, thirst quenching pepsi which was an absolute treat. I get back to work with a skip in my step, what a lovely, generous guy! 

In the afternoon, my fourth and final eco-oven is made at a large house, with a local lady called Isodora. I feel that the projects have got more and more enjoyable:
  • Water infrastructure was ok, but some of the days did spiral into endless digging.
  •  Vegetable plots were a step-up. They were quicker to do and you were working for families as opposed to random areas by the roadside.
  • Eco-ovens: you make something totally from scratch! There is no digging and there are so many benefits for the families using them. 
With two eco-ovens built in one day, there was no doubt I was completely and utterly filthy :). Dregs of dried mud crusted my legs up to my knees and my clothes were begrimed with dirt. There was a permanent layer of crud I could never shift beneath my nails and my forearms were browned with mud. 
It took me 30 minutes to wash the grime out of the shirt I was wearing. To this day, there is still a orangy clay tint on the material. All part of the Raleigh experience I say! 

The days passed by quickly for our last week in El Cacao. Instilling the help of the youth group and artists, we painted a colourful and eye catching mural on the outside of the community centre.

Before (top) and after (bottom) photo!
We also start the construction of two eco-latrines. It's been a wonderful Phase 3, we've all worked diligently and we've spent lots of evenings together with our impending departure date drawing ever closer... Work hard and play hard: It's a great combo!

In the afternoon, a local elderly lady gave us a tour of her farmland and the local honey production, up in the midst of beautiful hills overlooking El Cacao. 
We have a final, late night team bonfire in La Mora. Ben hosts the 'Individual Charlie 1 awards' with quirky categories such as "Charlie Millionnaire, Charlie guapo (good-looking) and Charlie bandit." 
All the voting was done in secrecy, with everyone assigned a number to input into an anonymous spreadsheet.  There were 18 - 20 categories in total for 15 of us. I scooped 3 titles and I was voted "Raleigh baby, Charlie dreamer and Charlie kind/amable!"

The Last Day

Thankfully, there is no work on our last day! 
Morning of the last day: we painted and cemented rocks with our names on. 
I trek together with Mark to El Pacon to say bye to Facundo and Maylin one last time. The kids follow us suite with Dennis, Candida and Margaly hand in hand with us.

We mess about with the kids, as per usual. Denis would speak to me rapidly then say "no entiendo?" (don't/do you understand?) Si Entiendo! I insist! No, he says laughing! Yes I say! Regardless of the language barrier, there is so much more to communication then just words. We laugh and joke together. 
The kids had a long lasting game with me that went along the lines of: "lets tickle her and run away, she'll chase us but she can't catch us because she's too slow". I happily play along, I've realised with working in a school is that sometimes the very best thing you can give to a child is your attention.  

When we reach Facundo's house, we play with the hammock together. I wrap the kids up inside the net, and tip them upside them. They squeal with laughter, as Mark prevents them from escaping. 

Saying Goodbye...

Marianna, Facundo's wife, generously prepares us and the children some beans and tortilla. We hug and say our goodbyes afterwards. 
Marianna's eyes well up with tears, the sight made me shake a little in emotion as I bid her farewell and give her a long and tender hug. How wonderful is it, that in Nicaragua, I can go to a community member's house, with three local kids, and be welcomed so warmly? Why did Marianna go out of her way to prepare chicken for fifteen strangers? It is humanity: it's unconditional, it's fondness and respect for others, untainted by wealth, race or social status.

I want to bring this back to the UK. I've seen it in so many LEDC countries and I get rare glimpses of it back in London. Even if the behaviour of others never change, at least I am in control of my own. I value and respect other people and I know one thoughtful or kind act towards an individual can go a long way. 

I return back to El Cacao in the afternoon and I join Mark, Chama and Alnufo on a venture to California, to bid farewell to Chama's host grandma. 
As we approach her home, she mumbles fondly I felt in my heart that someone was coming today". Chama presents her with bread as a small gift, as we hug and say goodbye. I brought 30 cordobas worth of bread with me too, to give away to Angelica (the lovely, free-spirited elderly lady in our vegetable plot video). We walked pass another local lady in California, who proceeded to hug us and thank us for the love we showed towards El Cacao. 

Mark, Chama, Alnufo and I rush back to El Cacao, just in time for the community goodbye party for us. It is an extremely deep and emotionally upsetting day: the host families make speeches on behalf of us as we hug and say goodbye to one another.

We eat together as a team, many of us depriving the night of sleep until the early AM's in order to stay with each other. Some play guitar and sing and others stare out at the stars.

The bus arrives early the next morning, at 7:30am. We board and bid a final, heartfelt farewell to our home. For me, this moment felt a little surreal, like it wasn't happening, yet it was at the same time. The seven hour journey  to Managua lulls me to sleep as I think of my host family that I'm leaving behind in El Cacao...

Round Up

  • A link to our end of project report is at:
  • We finished together as a complete team, Ana came back to El Cacao after visiting her grandma :).
  • In the final 2 days (known as 'wash-up'), we visited Masaya market, Masaya Volcano National Park and we had a end of project party.
  • To volunteer with ICS, go to to apply and select 'Raleigh International' as the preferred sending organisation.
  • You don't need much spending money for the placement at all. I brought around £55.00 ($90.00) and it lasted for the 10 weeks.
  • Things I wish I brought: A proper first aid kit (I went with a few plasters & painkillers!), more pens/batteries, more chocolate, little gifts for the kids and aloe vera (for the weird skin condition I got and for mosquito bite relief).
  • You can get internet access once every 2 weeks or so on placement. It varies if there is electricity or not, depending on where your project is.
  • If you have any questions about ICS, please feel free to email me or comment here. 
  • Thank you SO MUCH to anyone who sponsored me! £800 was a high target for me and I am truly thankful for every single donation. 
  • To read Week 1 - 5 of my blog, go to: 
Charlie 1: El Cacao -

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1 comment:

  1. sound really fun! I wish i do have some time to do what you did Aurnny.. thank you for sharing! keep it up your best experiences! and be safe!