Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Making Dreams Come True - Nicaragua Winter Term 2012

Doing Business in Nicaragua: Microfinance and Social Value Creation course brought life changing experiences to the students who lived it as well as to the Nicaraguan entrepreneurs whose dreams they made come true.

"It takes a village" is a true acknowledgment of all the people involved in the success of the course. We would like to recognize and thank Mr. Hardisty, former advisory board member of the Robert H. Smith School of Business, for his support in making arrangements and connections which greatly enhanced the course, as well as the CIBER program, for its financial support.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The last day in Nicaragua

I have the privilege of writing the last blog of the trip. I sit here in the debriefing session as we give our closing comments to what has been an amazing trip. I think I can safely say that all 11 of us enjoyed and got a lot out of the trip overall.

We all loved the time we spent in San Juan del Sur so much that we wanted to stay just a little longer. After some last minute changes in the schedule, the morning was split between people who went to the pelican pool and people who needed one last visit to the beach. Chelsea, Stephanie, Matt, Dillon and I went to the beach, thanks to Richard from San Juan. Driving through San Juan with Richard, we could really sense the family like atmosphere. Every three houses, as we drove, Richard smiled and waved at some other family member or friend along the way to the beach who he knows. Getting through the forest road to the Hurmosa beach was a feat on its own, but eventually we made it and were lucky enough to have almost the whole beach to ourselves. Although the water was still a little cold all five of us had a great time in and out of the water along the beach. A few hours and a few sun tans later, Richard took us back to the Casa Marina. On the way back, we got out of the jeep to take some pictures of the monkeys in the trees.

Before embarking on the drive back to Managua, we had sandwiches for lunch in Casa Marina. After a nice long drive back to Managua, we stopped in the store Esperanza along the way. There we had one last opportunity to buy some more gifts made by Nicaraguan artisans before we left. They had all sorts of nice ceramic pots and decorative bowls, plates, and jewelry. I couldn’t resist buying a couple more ceramics to bring back home to my friends and family. Following our short visit to Esperanza after some debate we decided to go check out this supposedly very scary zip-line in Managua. Only Chelsea and Dillon decided to try it from the group, but we all watched them excitedly as they each jumped off the platform.

We went to the UAM campus one more time to have dinner at the University. There the provost spoke of his hopes to continue the relationship between UAM and University of Maryland and wants to be able to arrange future joint projects between the two groups. On the way back to Camino Real hotel we stopped at a grocery store so everyone can load up on the cultural food to bring back to their friends and family.

As we pulled into Camino Real I think everyone had some deja vu as we walked into Camino Real remembering the first day of the trip, only 10 days ago, when we were only starting the trip, not knowing what to expect. How far we have come since then and how much we have accomplished. During the debriefing session by the pool, many people added their comments and constructive criticisms about the trip to try to improve the course in the future. As many have stated we were able to make a huge impact in the lives of 4 entrepreneurs and had a great time doing it. I hope this trip has the same continued success in the future that we had.

By Nikita Shenoy:

Hola payasos! I write this blog post as I sit in Dillon, Pratik, Matt, and Amiel’s apartment with the rest of the gang. We’re all reminiscing on the trip, even though it’s still not over! It is the second to last blog post though, so I feel like I have some pressure on me to make this one good! We did have a pretty emotional day though and I think everyone was semi on the verge of tears at least one point in the day.

Let’s start from the beginning though. Everyone started off the day differently as we all met with our groups to finalize our presentations for the day. Dipti, Dillon, and Chelsea went to Roxanna’s store to help out with the final touches of fixing everything up. Apparently it was a very emotional time as Roxanna was overwhelmed with tears at the thought of the impact the three students had on her business. In her own words she stated that without the help of their fundraising she would not have been able to raise the money that they did in even three years of work. This shows how much of a great impact they have had on one woman’s business.

Matt, Sandhya, and Leslie went with Michael Rosh in order to finish up visits with the people that he lends money to. Afterwards they got a great surf lesson at Madera Beach (the beach we went to on Sunday). Without saying, the rest of us were pretty jealous (except me because I can’t swim :o)!
Pratik, Carmen, and Amiel had a pretty eventful morning as well. They went back to Edwin and Ana Cecilia’s store to finish the painting that they have been working on for so long. Edwin told a heartwarming story later about how he asked the group, “You’re in San Juan, don’t you want to go to the beach?” The three responded by saying, “We’re not here to relax on vacation. We’re here to help all of you.” Then they continued to paint the shelves.

Stephanie and I had a great meeting with our entrepreneur Richard yesterday for about five hours, therefore we had a lot to reflect on this morning. We started off with a regular meeting yesterday to teach Richard how to use gmail on his new computer. However, the day turned into a great adventure with his entire family. We first started off taking a simple trip up to the Jesus Christ statue which had us feeling like we were on the top of the world (or at least San Juan del Sur).  

Then we took a trip to Richard’s past, present, and (hopeful) future. We visited his entire extended family in the house that he grew up in. It was great to see where exactly he started off – which actually was in very small, modest stone house where they used old spray cans for candles and did not even have a stove to cook on. He showed us all of the items he bought for his mother after making enough money which was really great to see.

We also took a trip to his current house and the house that he plans on building soon as their future home. Visiting all these places of Richard’s history really gave us a great appreciation for what we are doing here in Nicaragua. Before coming to Nicaragua I had a hard time imagining what kind of impact a couple of students could have on one person in the span of two or three days. After hearing Richard’s story and meeting his entire family we really saw what kind of an impact we could have. He came from almost nothing and established his name throughout San Juan del Sur. I think what we realized yesterday was that our impact would not just be on one person – it would be on his entire family and extended family. This makes every single effort and every cent of money that we spent on coming on this trip completely worth it.

After everyone presented on their respective entrepreneurs today it was quite the emotional moment as all the professors went around describing how important this trip was and how great it was that there was a quadruple impact on this trip. The professors/librarians, the UMD students, the UAM students, and the entrepreneurs all benefited from this trip in a tremendous way. I think everyone got a bit teary eyed at this moment as it was only a subtle joke here and there that made everyone keep from becoming emotional from all of the amazing speeches of the afternoon.  

We ended the night with a great dinner at Jane’s beautiful house. The professors had conversation and dinner inside while all the students continued our craziness in the backyard sharing stories, games, and laughter. I think it’s amazing to see how close all of us got throughout this trip. I was speaking with someone yesterday about our first trip together to Washington D.C. to visit the Nicaraguan ambassador and how we all barely knew each other. However, just after one week of close quarters, late nights, and waiting three hours for each dinner I feel like I know each and everyone of these people and I am so excited for the road ahead. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mon., Jan. 16

Richard, taxi service owner, with Stephanie, his new laptop, UAM student Richard and  Nikita.  You can view Richard's facebook page advertising his taxi service.

Pratik, Amiel, and Carmen in Ana Cecelia's newly moved grocery store, shelves painted by the students, goods arranged and the store ready for business!

Roger from UAM, Dipti, Roxanna, Dillon, and Chelsea in Roxanna's new clothing  store - new racks and mannequins purchased with the group's donations (Thank you donors!!)

Carmen, UAM student Richard, Edwin and Ana Cecelia and the entrepreneurs workshop

Leslie, Sandhya, entrepreneurs Leonel and Marguerite and UAM student Josue at the workshop

Sun., Jan. 15

Infinity Pool at Pelican Eyes resort near Hotel Villa Isabella

On a tour of Lee and Rachel Greenberg's eco friently house made from shipping containers

Stephanie, Dillon, Leslie, Nikita by tire restraining wall - made with recovered materials

Beautiful view from the Greenberg's home

Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's Another Beautiful Day

It is another beautiful day in San Juan Del Sur and we all took some time this morning to get our beauty sleep. After a delicious breakfast catered by Roxanna, many of us met Rachel at Villa Isabella for a tour of her unique home. The house was positioned on top of a mountain and, since we are all young and in great shape, we opted to catch a ride in one of the trucks and arrive in style. Shipping crates made up the frame of the home, leaving space for a beautiful patio and pool, and recycled tires were stacked, creating a rubber band like wall, high against the steep hillside they had dug to make a sturdy foundation for their dream home. While the design was interesting, the sustainability was incredibly impressive. The roof boasted a solar powered hot water heater, while every window air conditioner had solar panels pointed away from the hillside. A rain collection system was set up to funnel water from the roof down into underground water barrels where it could be stored in case the well ever stopped functioning or became strained as more people move into the area. The coating on the containers served as an exceptional insulation and kept the inside relatively cool, while breezes swept through the industrial looking windows. Unfortunately, the monkeys that frequent their trees where not around to greet us, but the view from the roof was stunning enough.

The groups split up to work with their respective entrepreneurs after each grabbing a variety of local dishes at restaurants or supermarkets nearby. My group in particular met with Michael Roche, who backs a micro finance company and takes a trip down to meet with the family running the operation and those who have borrowed money each year. During the house calls to his clients, we were able to get a better sense of the town. While the many brightly colored buildings stand out the most, the simple houses with dirt floors, tin roofs and genuine people also made an impression. No matter what their financial situation, everyone is proud of what they have and somewhat unlike in America, they take great pride in themselves, being always presentable even for a small outing.

We also were able to experience the extreme hills and the hazards even seemingly paved roads present. Michael drove a little, red sedan right up the side of a hill that looked as though it went straight up and would tip us over if we ever made it to the top. However, tipping over was not what proved an issue, the fact that a giant hole and the end of the pavement was waiting at the peak took us by surprise as we strained the engine and hoped rather loudly that we would make it. The view from the top was breathtaking, as you stood opposite the Jesus statue and looked out over the whole of San Juan Del Sur.

Then came dinner time when we went out for what promised to be a delicious meal; however, we became considerably grouchy, grumpy and impatient when the food took two hours and we were not offered refills on our drinks during that time. While threats of writing bad restaurant reviews and canceling our orders were tossed around the table as viable options, we ended up staying put because we're from Maryland and we finish what we start. Never say die....Even when you are starving and have an empty glass.

Another day in San Juan del Sur :D

Hola amigos! If you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog and have kept track of what we’ve been doing here in Nicaragua, you’d have realized that we have been balancing work and play, and today was no exception.

I woke up this morning and found myself feeling a bit sad. Ever since Pratik told me that he woke up a few days ago and realized our trip was already half over, I can’t help but feel that every new morning means one step closer to our departure. My fellow students and I have become quite comfortable here in San Juan del Sur. The sunny sky, the warm air, and the cool breeze that comes from the bay…it’s going to be hard readjusting to the cold, nipping weather back in Maryland (especially during the daily 15 minute walk from La Plata to Van Munching). I begin the day by stepping out onto the balcony of our condominium to appreciate the beautiful weather, and the beautiful view of the bay in the morning. After showering and cleaning up, I head down to breakfast. As I come down the stairs, I am greeted by three smiling face; Leslie, Roger and Josue are already seated at a table eating their breakfast. I order the typical Nicaraguan breakfast of rice, beans, eggs, and toast and scarf them down. The other students and I are convinced our stomachs have expanded after being stuffed during the first couple days on this trip. I estimate that I’m going to go back home 5 pounds heavier than when I left.

Pratik, Dillon, Chelsea, Stephanie, and Carmen spend the morning at the site of Cecilia’s new store where they help paint the banister, walls, and shelves. Every time I see them applying a new coat of fresh, white paint, I can’t help thinking of Tom Sawyer. After Leslie and I pay them a visit to see their progress, we walk back to the hotel to meet back up with Sandhya and prepare for our meeting at 12pm. Last night, we promised to train Lionel, his wife Margarita, and her sister Maria Teresa to use the laptop we plan to give them. While we wait, I break out the copy of The Hunger Games given to me by Jane. She was kind enough to lend me a copy after seeing me reading it in Susan’s book store. I’ve only been able to read for short periods of time, but I’m still hooked on it. Around 12:10, Margarita and Maria Teresa arrive, accompanied by Michael Roche, who gave them a ride. Together, we sit down and begin to teach them the basics of Microsoft Excel, the program they will use to keep track of their loans and to keep Michael updated on their progress. I find it quite incredible how fast they learn the working of the program. I’m used to struggling for hours trying to teach my parents how to use technology, but within a matter of minutes, Maria Teresa and Margarita are creating multiple sheets, each properly formatted and filled with the necessary formulas. My team has good foresight and also gives them a flash drive so they can back up their records. I can only imagine how distraught they’d be if for some reason they lost all their records and had no extra copies.

After finishing with our entrepreneurs, we all meet back up in Casa Marina. Richard has kindly offered to pick us up in his van and drive us all to Madera Beach. And yes, this is an actual beach, unlike the “beach” that is actually a bay in San Juan del Sur. We all pack into the van, stop by Villa Isabella to pick up some bag lunches, and then drive off to the beach. After being bounced around during the bumpy ride to the beach, we arrive and are ecstatic at the site of the sand and waves. We make camp on the beach and enjoy the lunches packed for us. After we’re all done eating, we test out the waters. Some of us quickly realize the water is too chilly for their liking and head back to tan in the sun and play kickball but Stephanie, Rinaldo, and I remain in the water to body board and play in the waves. Unfortunately, about half an hour later, we realize we’ve made a big mistake…we neglected the movement of the tides and have positioned our belongings too close to the water. Many of our belongings get soaked, but we reposition our belongings and try to make the best of the time we have left. Some of us venture off to climb some big rocks we can see off in the distance. Personally, I don’t understand the allure of large rocks, but I’m not judging. Hey, if you like looking/climbing big rocks, all power to you. Instead, I stay to play in the water and chill on the beach (which gave me more time to read my book!!!).

At 5, the group hops back in the van and we drive back to San Juan del Sur to get ready for dinner. We eat at an Italian restaurant owned by a nice lady who came to Nicaragua 14 years ago. After dinner, we have a brief conversation with her where she tells us how she came to be in Nicaragua. She had originally been on sabbatical and had planned to backpack all the way to Africa. But after coming to Nicaragua and meeting her future husband, she decided to settle down here. This is a very typical story you hear from those who live in Nicaragua who are foreigners. Sometime about this country, maybe the weather or the kind people, makes them want to stay here. I often wonder if I will ever have a chance to come back to Nicaragua and visit the people we’re currently interacting with. Thoughts like that make me cherish more and more the time I’m spending here.