Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

15 March 2012


When I was in India back in December I was stunned by the shear amount of construction going on. I feel like most of the time I spent in a car was spent weaving our way through construction sites. I would love to have before and after pictures of Chennai twenty years ago, ten years ago, and today. Everyone told me that by the time I go back it will be a completely different place, in terms of physical infrastructure anyway.
While infrastructure investment in Nicaragua can in no way approach the speed or scope of India, its presence and its impact are no less visible. In the last five years, heck, in the last two years, access to the east coast and some of the southern departments have improved exponentially. Here in my community as well, the march of progress continues. More roads are being paved with paving stones. They are building a (rather large) bus station/market. Outside of town a new dump is being prepared. Now especially, everywhere you go you can see people taking advantage of the income provided by the November-January harvests and the adobe/cement drying powers of the dry season sun.

My neighbor is putting in a bathroom. The first step of which involved digging a great big hole. I spent most of the week leaning over the wall and talking to the guys that dug it, watching as they shoveled the dirt, eventually hauling it up with buckets, then hauled it away with an cart and a team of oxen. I've also been watching for over a year now as a decrepit old theater has been renovated into the beautiful structure pictured to the left (and down). Work has progressed piece-meal, when funds and weather allowed it to.

In addition to physical infrastructure, businesses come and go. I wish I knew how many cellphone repair shops, used shoe/clothes shops, and convenience stores have opened and closed since I've been here. We recently got a new laboratory (to do medical tests) and a second internet cafe. We will see if the market is big enough to support them. The laboratory is in a building that has housed at least four different businesses since I first moved to town. That is the way of economic progress though, it stumbles its way forward.

What Nicaragua really needs if it hopes to take advantage of its resources is stability. Fifty years with no major natural or man-made disasters. Time to let the country take advantage of its investment in physical and human capital and to convince the rest of the world that Nicaragua is a stable place to invest. Already you can see individuals and businesses rushing to take advantage of the better connectivity to the east and south. You can also see the population responding to the job opportunities. As I ride the bus I see a lot of young engineers, both men and women, supervising work crews made up of individuals twice their age. Most of my students tell me they want to study engineering of one sort or another because that's where the jobs are.

Is access to this progress uniform and equal across the country or in a single community? Of course not. Not everyone has access to the same technology or the same educational opportunities. Some of my students have internet in their houses and some of them wouldn't have the slightest idea how to turn on a computer. Some of my students will go to college, some of them will dig holes like the one next to my house and haul away the dirt with an oxcart, or maybe a truck. There are plenty of places that aren't getting new roads and whose farmers can't get their milk out to market. While the new roads will make it easier for some farmers, they will put others at a competitive disadvantage. Development as a whole has always made it hard for small farmers. What will the families do that have been small farmers for generations? Families that see farming not so much as a business as a way of life?

I don't know. Some will send their kids to college to be engineers, switch from planting beans to making long term investments in planting coffee and use the higher incomes to hire other people to dig their holes and build their houses. Others will struggle. That's one of the few things I know for sure.

¡Avión! ¡Avión!

A few weeks ago, I went over to one of my counterparts' houses to plan our class. Usually we do a group planning session at my house, but every once in a while something comes up— in my schedule or in one of theirs. I've been working with this counterpart for over a year now, so I've come to know her, her husband (who teaches at another of my schools), and their six-year-old son pretty well. Her son, Nazer, is a smart, confident, little kid who is quite fond of me and loves to tell me what he's doing even if I'm in the middle of planning class with his mom. When I got to the house that day, Nazer was playing with a battery-powered car that moved forward and backward when directed by an attached remote control. He explained how it worked and told me that the batteries were almost dead. We gave it a little nudge in the direction we wanted it to go and managed to get it working. When we started planning our class his mom sent him outside to play so that we could focus on the lesson.

About ten minutes later, I hear Nazer screaming at the top of his lungs: ¡Avión! ¡Avión!. Then, he comes running into the house, still screaming, with one hand above his head pointing to the sky. “¡Avión! ¡Avión! ¡Es un avión!” He ran in a few circles and then headed back out the door. I tried to go back to planning the lesson, but I could still hear him out in the street. Curiosity got the getter of me and I got up and walked outside. Sure enough, there was an airplane, way above the clouds, cruising through the sky. Truth be told, it is the first airplane I have seen in the sky over Jícaro in the twenty months I've lived here.

I became aware of the lack of airplanes in the sky over northern Nicaragua maybe six months ago. I was standing in one of my schools looking out over the hills and was struck by the emptiness of the clear blue sky. Even if I had seen the plane that caught Nazer's attention, I probably wouldn't have noticed the little spec of white moving silently through the sky. I suspect you wouldn't have either. If we had, I know it wouldn't have prompted us to run around the neighborhood shouting at the top of our lungs. I can only wonder how Nazer would react to visiting the airport in Managua or, better yet, standing in the park at the end of the runway of Reagan Natl. Airport in DC and watching the planes drop out of the sky over his head.

What we see, what we notice, and how we react to them are functions of our experiences. I notice things now that would never have caught my eye two years ago. There are also many things that I see every day, things that once caused me to stop and take note, that now slide right past my eyes as if they were so normal that they barely warrant recognition. Not only does this have implications for the way we interact with the place we live from day to day, it has huge work implications for someone like myself who aspires to plan and evaluate development programs and interventions. To have any idea how a project is likely to go, you have to be able to see it the way its participants are going to see it. One of the quotes on my refrigerator, stolen I believe from the 2011 Time 100 profile of Cory Booker, says, “You can best serve what you know.” I firmly believe this to be true and it is one of the lessons I hope I don't forget when I leave Peace Corps.