Friday, February 26, 2010

Coco River - Ulwasking - Day 1

As the boat pulled up to Ulwasking, we saw many people in the river, in the shallows. At first I thought they were all washing clothes, as many other people were during the trip east; but I was mistaken. They quickly explained to us that they were panning for gold! The one advantage to the dry season and current drought is that the river is shallow enough to allow for panning. They said they can pan about 1 gram per day, and can get about c$500 ($23.80US) per gram. Not bad.

Difficult to see, but there are 15-25 people panning

Many community members and children came to meet us and help carry the gear up to the school. Fermin had sent a message previously that we were coming, but apparently they didn't receive it. So we set a time for a town meeting for an hour later, although by that time we realized that not enough people had heard, so we rescheduled for the next morning.

The children seemed to enjoy our antics

James in particular was a hit with the kids, entertaining them while we set up. We brought cots with us for our luxury accommodations.

Having a rest

Since the meeting didn't go as planned, one of the community leaders took us to see their existing water system, which had been working, up until a few months ago.

Existing spring capture, not clean water!

The water system had been built some years ago by another organization, but it looks like the community had not been involved in the construction, as is our policy - so, when Hurricane Felix destroyed several parts of the system, they were unable to repair it.

Fermin: "Should this be connected?"

After Hurricane Felix, the Mayor's office had some emergency funds and did some repairs, but unfortunately they did not seem to take much care in them. The PVC pipes were just laid on the ground, not buried, and were susceptible to animals stepping on them and other mishaps. They had 2 plastic tanks, and they seemed in good shape though. It was interesting to hear how they got the tanks to the community. They drove to Las Piedras, then threw them in the river and guided them in a small canoe. No expensive transport in that case...

The poverty in the community was fairly evident. During the civil war, the Contras were based on the Honduran side and often came across through this region. The Nicaraguan government evacuated the community to Jinotega, which is why many of them speak very good Spanish, as well as Miskito. During the evacuation, they were only allowed to take 2 bags with them. The homes were all burned down, so the other side could not use them, I suppose. The homes have been rebuilt for years now, but they are fairly simple, mostly wood with zinc roofing. The roofing was given to them when they returned from Jinotega.

This home had just 1 wall

In total, there are 45 homes, 27 in and around the school, and another 18 on the other side of a small military base. There were no latrines, except one in the school that was full and one other.

School latrine in Ulwasking

That evening, we ate our dinner and talked to some of the community members and enjoyed the stars. With no electric lights for miles, the night sky is very impressive. During the chat, we learned that the community name was not Ulwaskin as we had previously thought, but Ulwasking. Apparently, the indigenous people in this area had called themselves Ulwas, and this particular area belonged to the king. Thus, Ulwasking. I only heard the latter part of the tale after star gazing; perhaps I can get more details in the next visit...

Coco River - getting there

We had a couple of good friends come to visit, Mark and James. They were interested to see our newest area where we are carrying out projects with El Porvenir (

They arrived in Managua on Wednesday, and we spent a good portion of Thursday (about 5-6 hours) driving to Wiwilí, the town where we have our newest office. We checked into the hotel and met Fermín, our local staff member, for dinner. After a filling meal of beans and rice (if you've ever been to Nicaragua, then you know this is the meal of choice), we got to bed to prepare for an early start.

On Friday, we met our guide, Pico and then we drove up to Las Piedras, where we caught the boat. Normally, one can catch a boat in Wiwilí, but 2009 was a drought year for Nicaragua, and the river is lower than usual. Las Piedras offered a better starting point. I think Mark and James were impressed by the roads, which were generally good, until the last 20 minutes or so, when the road disappeared into more of a cattle trail.

Mark, Pico, Eddy and Fermin waving

Still, we made good time (less than 1.5 hours), and the boaters (Eddy and Carlos) were waiting for us. The boat ride took about 3.5-4 hours, but it was well worth the time and sunburns (no shade for 4 hours!). I wish I could say we saw more wildlife than anything. Although we did see an enormous amount of birds, including herons, cranes, eagles and lots of turtles; we saw more cattle than anything else. Not that I mind seeing cattle, but seeing them in the river helps drive it home why the river water is not safe to drink...

Cattle taking a break from the heat

A blurry turtle


It is a beautiful country side, which perhaps you can gather from the photos, although it doesn't give the same feeling as you get riding down the river in the valley, surrounded by green. The Coco River is the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, but the cattle and people don't seem to notice. We did stop at the "border control" point - a small Nicaraguan military base. Two guys, with large guns, asking who we were. Eddy gave them the story, and the foreigners weren't asked anything - no passport checks thankfully, since most of us didn't have them on us. It seemed a little odd; they probably assumed we couldn't speak Spanish.

We stopped at a small "waterfall" for a snack. Still no shade. We planned on 5 loaves of bread for the 7 of us for 2 days. Unfortunately, 2 people bought 5 loaves so we had 10. I think we overdid that part.

Although the trip was beautiful, we certainly did note the effects of agriculture and deforestation on both side of the border.

Cattle grazing on the left, forest on the right

On the positive side, we saw petroglyphs right in the river. I had seen them on Ometepe Island, but had no idea they were out here on river as well.

Petroglyph on the Honduran side

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Coco River

Rob Bell, our executive director, just got back recently from visiting a community on the Coco River on the border with Honduras. We are planning to take on our first project in the Miskito area in this community, called Ulwasking. Once he catches up on some things back here in the office, he will post a little about the trip...