2006 Esteli, Nicaragua
Hi there. I am finally able to take the time to sit down at a computer and describe the adventures of this past week. Right now I am sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Las Mercedes across the street from the airport in Managua, Nicaragua. It is early on Sunday morning and I am in recovery mode. A group of 16 of us VOSH volunteers arrived here last Saturday afternoon and met up with the other half of our group, making it a total of 29 people on this mission. I had only met 2 of them before, from our previous mission to Peru last year. The youngest in our group is 18 years old, the daughter of Dr. Roth, an Optometrist from Miami. I can only guess the age of our oldest volunteer, but I can guarantee you he will probably out live us all! These kind of trips are not for whimps, so you can imagine the determination and fortitude it takes to make several per year after retirement age. This was the first mission trip for several in our group, including the 13 students from Illinois College of Optometry. They are from all over the USA and Canada. Most of the others are from Florida.
We were greeted at the airport by the smiling and familiar face of Sergio Romero, our friend and translator from previous missions. All of the students and I loaded into his Toyota pickup truck and explored the city sights that first evening. We saw the old dilapidated but impressive cathedral in the main plaza across from the President’s Palace and the Royal Palace which houses the cultural museum and national library. These buildings have never fully recovered from the earthquake in 1972 and hurricanes that hit so often here, so are virtually unusable. They are trying to raise money to renovate the church and improve the historic center for tourism. A few blocks away lies the vibrant sea wall and park along Lake Managua. There is a huge amphitheater here in the shape of a shell of some sort. Personally, I think it looked like an upside down pair of ears. There were vendors selling all sorts of local delicacies, including tostones (crispy fried plantains), ring shaped cookies, watermelon, candy, and even ice cream. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and motorcycles zoom in and out of the crowds in the park. The music on the loudspeakers is a mixture of Salsa and techno dance music and they like to play it VERY LOUDLY!!! WE found that to be true everywhere went. Several monuments and sculptures dot the area and we caught a fabulous view of the surrounding mountains, volcanoes and lakes from the top of a hill. Sergio then took us to a local restaurant for breezy outdoor dining with native dishes accompanied by live music on the stage. I particularly enjoyed the fried sweet plantains, the skewers of flavorful meats and chunks of fried cheese. I would hate to measure my cholesterol after this week!!!
We returned to the hotel and retired to the pool bar while a handful of the students ventured out to a Disco bar and salsa dancing with Sergio until the wee hours of the night. It was a great introduction to the sights and culture of this proud and beautiful developing country. The next morning we boarded our trusty white (not yellow) Blue Bird school bus and headed towards the mountains and the town of Matagalpa. The road is surprisingly good for the first 2 hours because it is part of the PanAmerican highway. However, once we turned off of it, we bounced along the curvy narrow road for the last hour to our hotel. The countryside is dry and dusty, with few trees taller than maybe 30 feet. We saw several cattle ranches, coffee plantations and factories. The homes varied in their level of construction, with the simplest made of corrugated tin panels and wood beams. The nicer homes have stone or brick walls with colorfully painted stucco and tile roofs. Some had beautiful ironwork over the windows and doors. Almost all have fortified walls or fences around them to protect what little the people do own. Animals roam the streets and the hills and do not seem to mind the intense sun and limited water sources. We passed over many dry, rocky riverbeds. We entered the town of Matagalpa and stopped at the Tip Top Pollo, a local fried chicken chain located adjacent to a Shell gas station. They served up excellent chicken dinners and the place was packed. The bus almost got stuck trying to get up the VERY steep hill to our beautiful hotel, but it was worth the trouble because the view of the town and hills was spectacular. We walked down and explored the streets and mixed with the locals who were all hanging out in the streets socializing on a Sunday afternoon. We caught the end of mass at the cathedral and then headed up the opposite hill to our clinic site, a convent and school. We unloaded the 20 plus duffle bags full of glasses and equipment and set up in 4 rooms of the school. The rooms were small, so it was always warm and crowded while we worked with he patients. Local middle school girls helped us out with registration outside the gates. Once inside, each patient had their visual acuites checked at distance and near by the determined volunteers and translators. Communication barriers and the noisy environment made this area a real challenge. Next stop was triage, with doctors and students determining each individual’s needs and then them out with eyedrops or to the refraction area and the dispensary for glasses. We handed out and adjusted tons of recycled single visions, bifocals, readers and sunglasses. We saw just under 200 patients per day, which was less than we hoped for and ended up turning several away. The crowd did get unruly at the end of the day but we had to pack up the clinic in the dark. Imagine the guilt you feel knowing that you could help if you only had more time and resources.
Part of the group headed to Esteli on Tuesday night and the rest arrived the next morning. After the 2 hour drive, we checked in to our Hotel Panorama on the main highway. The rooms were tiny and very simple. No hot water was available and no running water at all for several hours on Wednesday. This was a reality check for many in the group, but we dealt with it and the water finally came back on late that night. We visited Sergio’s family farm for a lunch of wonderful chicken soup and met his mother, sister, wife and children. His daughter Mary, a college student studying to be a lawyer, stayed with us and helped out with the mission too.
We set up our clinic in a spacious new auditorium at a local school and the logistics turned out to be much more favorable for efficiency. We had the Lions club members helping out with registration and acuities this time and were able to double our patient numbers to almost 400 per day. All total we saw over a thousand patients in 4 days and made friends with some interesting and passionate people. We treated infections, removed foreign bodies, educated people and donated our leftover supplies. We saw eye diseases only seen in textbooks in the US, and referred several people for surgery by local Ophthalmologists. We helped a lot of people see better and taught them how to protect their eyes and their vision.
The trip back to Managua late Friday night was a time for reflection and celebration. The stories, beer and rum drinks flowed freely on the bus and the pool felt great to the exhausted group. Our last day in Nicaragua was spent as tourists. We visited the Masaya Volcano National Park where a steaming crater and unique vegetation overlooked a lagoon. Next we shopped in the Mercado in the town of Masaya where we found a fantastic selection of hand crafted items, including clothes, leather bags, shoes, wooden boxes, pottery, paintings and soapstone sculptures. I was tempted to buy so many things, but had to remind myself of the limited space in my bags. Urgh!
Next we visited the shores of Lake Nicaragua and the colonial town of Granada. We had a relaxing and entrancing hour long boat ride among the isletas (mini islands each with a house and terraced gardens) and saw hundreds of unique birds and even a few monkeys dangling merrily from the trees. Boy did they like to show off! The sun set as we munched on ice cream walking the colorful and vibrant streets of Granada which prides itself on it’s architecture and hospitality. I definitely want to return and spend more time exploring this area. There is so much to see and do and it is very affordable and the people friendly. I hope you enjoyed this long winded report and will respond with any comments or questions.
All my love,