January 10, 2001, I embarked on my third trip with Discovery Service Projects. Rowland and Barbara Carlson head this group, which is based in Pipersville, PA. The 2001 trip was to Rivas, Nicaragua where we worked on a hospital. We fixed a leaky roof, repainted rooms, sewed privacy curtains and built a women’s health wing.
Members of our group stayed in four different locations in Rivas and San Jorge. My friend, Tonya, and I stayed at the Hotel Mar Dulce with thirteen others from our group. We arrived at our "hotel" about midnight. I use the term hotel loosely, because it was unlike any hotel I’ve ever seen. Rooms cost $10 per day. Four bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs. Our group had the full run of the place. We ate breakfast in a large main room downstairs and cooked in the kitchen. There were no maids who visited on a regular basis. There was no front desk. The hotel is situated on Lake Nicaragua--literally. The white caps hit about 2 feet out from the front steps. The directions to the hotel are like this; drive to the end of the street that ends in the lake, turn down an alley for about 3 blocks and when the alley ends, drive across the beach (about 20 feet wide) for several blocks with the waves lapping at the tires. On Friday night numerous people come to the front door and ask if we had available rooms.
Lake Nicaragua is smaller than Lake Superior, but larger than some of the other Great Lakes. We did have a wonderful view from our room. About a mile out into the lake there were two volcanoes, which were normally shrouded in mist. At night they glowed in the moonlight. The wind off the lake was strong, relentless and we could not close any windows. There was a fine layer of sand over everything from all the wind. We had a few geckos in our room, on the ceiling and walls. They have a lovely call like a bird. We could have used more of them to control the mosquitoes. No hot water so showers are quick and only when necessary, like at the end of the workday when we were filthy. Generally, there were three people to a room. We had about a 1" foam mattress on a metal spring bed frame. My pillow was filled with rice hulls or straw or something, so was rather crunchy when I laid on it. We also had to leave the door of our bedroom open the whole time to keep the air circulating. It was so windy in the room that I thought my contacts might blow away before I could get them in my eyes. On Sunday morning the banana bread was left on the buffet since a few of us were up early that morning. When the rest of the group came in to eat the bread was covered with ants, which they had to brush off. The owner of the hotel was there that morning fixing a few things and we heard Barbara tell him he had to do something about the rats because they were eating the food in the kitchen. He brought some cats over.
The first night in the hotel I kept waking up to the feeling of bugs on my face. I was horrified the next morning when I looked in the mirror because my face was covered with bright red spots. Tonya and a few others in the hotel were bitten up too, but not everyone. You would have thought there was no way a mosquito could stay on a face with all the wind, but they were very tenacious. We thought we were stupid for not using DEET the first night. Thursday night we used DEET (really heavy-duty stuff) and still got bit up. We weren't sleeping because we could feel the bugs on our faces. The next day we tried to close up the room as much as possible and spray with Raid, covered our mattresses and pillows with plastic, just in case they were in the bed, and tried another mosquito repellent. Still they attacked us. I had 53 mosquito bites just on my face. I looked like I had the measles. Tonya was having an allergic reaction to her bites. They bit us on the lips, eyelids—any exposed body part. Tonya and I rebelled and said we were moving somewhere else because no one was getting bit at the other places. Tonya told them she'd sleep with me in a single bed if that's what it took to get away from the biting. That afternoon we were near a market so decided to search for mosquito netting. We were lucky and found 3 nets for single size beds. Tonya and I pushed our beds together and overlapped the mattresses so we could get under one and let some of the others have the other two nets. Thank goodness it worked. We were finally able to sleep. We giggled like kids every night when we crawled into bed, using our flashlights to make sure there weren’t any mosquitoes in with us.
The hospital in Rivas is a large facility. They try to offer as many services as possible, but much of their equipment is not functional. It also has a lot of open corridors, so there's no restrictions as to who can go in. Dogs and cows wander around as often as little kids and adults. Most services at the hospital are free. There is one wing with private rooms for paying patients. When someone goes into the hospital the entire family tends to come along and stay too. Meals are not necessarily included for patients. On laundry day they wash all the gowns and then throw them on the ground behind the building to dry.
At least they hang the x-rays up to dry!
We worked on the hospital Monday through Friday and Saturday morning. It was very hot and the sun was really intense. The first morning I carried bricks and shoveled rock into buckets for mixing cement. In the afternoon Tonya and I thought it might be good to get inside out of the sun, so we offered to help paint some of the patient rooms. The rooms hadn't been painted in 15 years. They probably hadn't been cleaned in that long either. While I was removing the switch plate dried bug parts just rained out of it. The light fixtures had about 2 inches of bug parts on top of them. As I taped around the baseboard the roaches would run out of the cracks. While I painted the roaches would just move a few inches in front of my brush.
The bathrooms in the rooms were completely disgusting. The walls had blood and feces, whatever, stuck to them. I was cutting in with the brush along the ceiling. The bathroom had a suspended ceiling in it and there was black crud running down the walls. I asked one of the guys if I needed to scrub that down first. They told me not to because when they had done that the day before the roaches had just about attacked them. And then he decided to spare me, so took the brush from me. The rooms really did look much better after the painting, but I decided I just didn't want to paint anymore.
Lovely view of ceiling in bathroom. Tonya Mayro and Alan Powell.
What would you do if you were in the hospital and a bunch of foreigners walked in and told you they were going to paint? That's what we had to do. We'd move the empty beds into the middle of the room first, but soon we'd have to move the beds with the patients. Fortunately the patients usually decided to go find another place to camp out.
After only one afternoon of painting, I decided I’d take my chances out in the hot sun. I became a bricklayer instead. This is the first project I’ve worked on where we've used brick. Usually it's been cement block and I never liked laying it because it is so heavy. The local foreman on this project, Ramon, was great to work with. In other places the local men are resistant to letting women work on the construction projects. Ramon was a great teacher and very patient. His mantra: "Without fear, without shame. We will win. We will lay brick." My goal was to not have one of my walls taken down because it was crooked. I was able to meet my goal.
The Saturday morning we were in Rivas is when the earthquake in El Salvador hit. We did not feel the tremors outside, but the people working inside the hospital felt the floors move and heard the windows rattling. Rivas is on the same fault line as the one in El Salvador, only about 300 miles away. We thought it was just a local tremor. It was later that afternoon, when someone had a radio on, that we found out it was a big quake.
My Spanish is really getting pretty good. I'd had to learn construction lingo several years ago. This time I had to learn how to talk about privacy curtains. And then there was the boiler that was broken. Rowland called me over and told me to tell the maintenance guy that we had someone in the group who could work on the boiler. (How in the heck do you say boiler? I started explaining we could fix that big broken thing back that way. He said "caldera." Yes, caldera is a boiler!) Rowland sent me back with the engineer to make a list of parts they needed. I was thinking I had really gotten in over my head, but many of the parts’ names originated in English, so it wasn’t as bad as I thought. One of the things they needed was a pressure gauge with a 3/8" fitting. He was starting to explain the fitting and I told him I understood about fittings. Then he asked me if I was an engineer!
We have a lot of fun on these trips too. Saturday afternoon we went to San Juan del Sur to a beach on the Pacific. Gorgeous day to lay in the sand. Sunday we drove to Masaya, which is about 1.5 hours from Rivas. There was a small market there. Everything was really inexpensive, except, of course, the oil painting I wanted. After the market we went to a National Park that has a smoking volcano. The volcano hasn't erupted since the late 1700s, but it releases a tremendous amount of smoke. We did a little hiking there. Stopped at a crater lake on the way back to Rivas. It was really cold and windy at the lake so we mostly spent time trying to find a warm place to hide out.
When we got back into town a few of us decided to go to a 6:00 mass in the local church. We noticed right away that there was white crepe paper between the pews on both sides of the aisles and some long lace curtains hung crossways overhead. It looked like it was decorated for a wedding, but one of the guys with us had been told mass stated at 6:00. So we went in and sat down. When the wedding march started and we saw the bride at the back of the church, we about fell over. We just looked accusingly at each other and decided to stay since we were sitting in the middle of the church. I think it was actually a regular mass that just happened to have a wedding too. Music was great. Traditional songs played on a keyboard with a rumba rhythm. When it came time to "pass the peace" (that's what I call it anyway), the people gave us big hugs and kissed us on the cheek. Quite a difference from the hesitant handshakes you many times get in the states.
Lunch and breakfast were provided for us by the group, but we ate out for dinner. In past years, we would split up into smaller groups to eat out, but this time there weren't as many restaurant choices and we had a bus to take us everywhere, so we would go as a big group. 30 people really overwhelmed these places. The first night I was the first person to order and the last person to get my food—it took about 2 hours. I was so hungry I think I set a record for eating everything on my plate. One other restaurant we went to only had 3 chicken breasts to serve which of course is probably the most popular choice for a group of Americans. We did order pizza a couple nights.
The man who arranged for us to be in Rivas was one of the doctors at the hospital and had also just been elected mayor. We had a lot of television and newspaper coverage. He was inaugurated into office on the Tuesday we were there. That night he invited us to his house for a big celebration. The lights in the hotel had a tendency to dim and surge the whole time we were there, especially if Tonya or I used our hair dryers. When we got back from the worksite on Tuesday the electricity had been off since 9:00 that morning. The houses around us all had electricity so we thought it was a problem with the connection into the hotel. As the bus came to pick us up at 6:30 to go the mayor's house all the lights in town went off. We arrived at the mayor's house in the dark. (It was good we all followed instructions and brought our flashlights along.) Soon they had hooked up a generator so there were lights in the backyard. We sat outside and watched traditional dancing while the bats swarmed overhead--eating all the mosquitoes which is good. We had a traditional dinner served on banana leaves--ripe plantains (maduros), green plantains (tostones), yucca, strips of beef (really mostly fat so I didn't eat that part), and topped by a coleslaw type salad. We ate this with our hands. It was great and I was glad we got some traditional food.
It really was a great trip and a good experience. I was able to meet up with old friends and make some new ones too. The people of Rivas were happy to have us there. It felt really good to be making a difference for these people. I also wasn’t ready to come home yet. Maybe next time I’ll stay two weeks.