...Mark Horwedel...
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My Nicaraguan Journey

Editor's note: Each year, the company where Mr. Horwedel works, Carris Reels in Vermont, USA, offers to send employees overseas for a couple of weeks so they can experience different cultures and ways of life. For more information on how your company can provide the same, click on "more info." Carris Reels recently won an award for "Employee Empowerment" from the Council on Economic Priorities.

We landed and found ourselves in a small, quiet airport, surrounded by young strangers who turned out to be students from Drake University and their educators. As we stood in line to get into the country, Dan Spencer & Nancy Reincke (two of the teachers), passed out five dollar bills to give to the customs people as we came in.

Our belongings in our arms, we were packed into our touring bus. We drove through the capital, the city of Managua, to "our house." The city looked so strange that first night. Nothing seemed finished. Under street lights, talking Spanish, children laughed and played -- darting in and out of shadows. Quiet adults watched our bus go by with mixed emotions on their faces.

Everywhere you looked, you see the gaudy red and white of the Coca-Cola logo. The familiar trademark was squeezed into every available nook and cranny. It was disturbing to see. It was almost like corporate America was putting its brand on this country and its people....staking a claim, so to speak.

We arrived at "our house." It was nice. The guys bunked at one end, and the women folk at the other.

The next day started early -- about 5 a.m. for Dan, Larry, and me. All three of us are early- rising, over-time working, coffee-drinking He-men. We found a little outside area off the dining room and named it, "the veranda." We spent a lot of time out there.

Breakfast was at 7:00. We could have eggs or cereal, but always available were beans and rice. Ah...those three little words will always mean so much to me: "beans and rice." This, of course, is the staple of the Nicaraguan diet. They were a side dish for every meal we ate -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- every place we went. We couldn't drink the water, but bottled water was always available. Juices, sodas, and beer were also lifesavers. The coffee was good, but not what you or I are used to. And I had to wonder what animal gave us the milk for our coffee -- thank you, mystery animal!

That first day, there were introductions and an historical overview of Nicaragua. After the talk, Aynn, our guide, had us load up the bus and gave us a tour of downtown Managua. The capital city suffered an earthquake in the late 70s and still hasn't rebuilt (no money). The most damaged part of the city was the center, and most of it is overgrown with greenery. They were rebuilding a Presidential Palace, a good place for children to beg in front of -- and that's what they did. Doesn't say much for a government, but we don't have that much room to talk.

Aynn also took us to Managua's huge, main cathedral, which had also been devastated by the earthquake. The roof was long gone. People were allowed to go through it, and we did. It was painful, magnificent, haunting, beautiful, and impressed me enough to try to paint it when I got home.

Those words, "painful, magnificent, haunting, and beautiful" could also be used to describe the country itself. It is truly a paradise -- the fragrance of flowers, vistas of incredible beauty. Nicaragua is known as "the land of lakes and volcanoes." These volcanoes tend to give the land the cliffs and mountains a breathtaking beauty.

The next day, we took a small plane to Bluefields on the Atlantic coast. It's a small city, supported by fishing. Meeting with the head pastor of the Moravian Church, we got an idea of the history of the little city. We had lunch at a nice café overlooking the bay. Then we climbed into a boat -- it pulled up to the restaurant. We all packed in -- all 20 or so of us -- and headed for Pearl Lagoon, where we spent the next two days.

On Sunday, a group went swimming in a volcanic lake in Xiloa. I didn't go to swim: I went to paint. No Darth Vader or Captain America -- I wanted to try painting the real places....soon, I started to feel like part of the land.

That evening, we went to church at the Batahola community center. Many beautiful murals adorned the building. It seemed that every place we went was filled with color and purpose.

We met with woman of the Maria Elena Cuadra Women's Movement, and the subject was the "free trade zone." The fact is that most of our clothes -- K-Mart, The Gap, WallMart are made in these free trade zones. People are paid pennies a day for 10 to 16 hour days. They tend to target young women between 12 and 20 because of their speed, dexterity and because they are easily manipulated. It's the only job to be had, so people line up around the block for these low-paying, crappy jobs.

While Maria Eliseth Ruis spoke, our young friends from Drake took notes, as this trip is part of their course work. I had a small watercolor set with me, so I painted her picture. I loved her reaction when she saw the picture. She laughed, hugged me, and called me a "bandit."

Later that afternoon, we had a meeting with Padre Ernesto Cardenal at Casa de Los Tres Mundos, which was his art gallery. It was my understanding that the Padre was a hero of the revolution. He has two books in publication and sculpted a piece of art that overlooks the entire city. I did get a chance to ask him what the single biggest inspiration was in his life. His answer was "love" -- in different forms, but always love. I did a small portrait of him, and he smiled when he saw it and autographed it for me.

On Tuesday, we were on the move again. This time we headed out into the mountain community of Esteli. We visited an organic farm. We saw coffee plants and other crops. They explained how they used other extracts to ward off unwanted bugs. All this in the beautiful mountains.

The bus didn't like the mountains very much. If the hill got really bad, we all got out and walked and watched the bus putt-putt by -- minus all its passengers. We also had a chance to meet young people and women who were part of farming communities in the area.

Did I have a profoundly, wonderful, enlightening journey? You bet I did. Thanks, Dan & Larry. It was great having all those adventures with you guys. I'd also like to thank the staff...Dan Spencer is an incredible teacher, person, and friend. Thanks to Aynn Setright for opening our eyes to the truth. To the rest of the staff, Jennifer, Nancy, Mark, and Dave -- thank you. And to the students, Sam, Matt, my good friend, Brad, and Jennette, Jana, Chrissy, Sheila -- and everyone else -- I love you all. Thanks for the push, Marilyn. Finally, Bill, I sincerely thank you for yet another wonderful opportunity.