Monday, August 8, 2016

Life under the volcano: Twin-town travels to Nicaragua

In March 2015 I made my first trip to San Francisco Libre, a small town in Nicaragua that has been twinned with my adopted home town of Reading since 1994. In September I plan to return. In the meantime I have created a Flickr album of images from my first trip that highlights the educational and environmental projects that a local charity called the Reading San Francisco Libre Association is helping to fund there.

By Russell Maddicks

Since 1994, the towns of Reading in the UK and San Francisco Libre in Nicaragua have been officially twinned. However, this longstanding relationship isn't widely publicized so when I stumbled across a street named "San Francisco Libre" near the old Reading Borough Council offices it really intrigued me.

In a sense, this is where my reconnection to Nicaragua began: on a grey, wintry day, when just by chance I happened to look up and see a Spanish-sounding name that stopped me in my tracks and started me out on a voyage of discovery.

As a journalist specializing in books and articles about Latin America the Nicaragua-Reading link instantly piqued my interest. 

How could my adopted home town of Reading, a prosperous but fairly uneventful town on the River Thames, have this historical bond with exotic Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes and the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

We're talking about a battle-scarred state that has survived a troubled past of invasions, dictatorships, revolution and counter-revolution and managed to reinvent itself as a tourist mecca for millenials and hailed as the second safest place to travel in the Americas after Uruguay.

A quick Google search revealed that San Francisco Libre is a small town of about 13,000 souls about two hours drive from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. 

The centre of town, known as El Puerto (The Port), lies in the shadow of the mighty Momotombo volcano on the banks of Lake Managua, which only made the prospect of visiting even more appealing.

I also found an active local group in Reading called the Reading San Francisco Libre Association (RSFLA), which has supported educational and environmental projects in San Francisco Libre since the two towns were twinned and runs a number of annual events through its fundraising arm the David Grimes Trust. 

It was like fate was leading me back to Nicaragua, a country that offers amazing travel experiences, colonial cities, world-class surfing on Pacific beaches, volcano boarding, award-winning Flor de Caña rum, and the best food in Central America, but is barely known beyond a few Clash songs about the Sandinista Revolution.

The next step was to see San Francisco Libre for myself, meet the people, and document the educational and environmental projects that the RSFLA have been sponsoring there through a local NGO called Apreden.

My visit was also a chance to learn more about a German twin town group called Nicaragua-Verein from Oldenburg, which also works with Apreden.

It was a surreal but exciting experience arriving in San Francisco Libre. I was the honoured guest in town, and giggling kids in the Concepcion de Maria primary school nudged each other and pointed out the "chele" (an endearing word for a foreigner). Perfectly turned out in their white shirts, you would never think that these children come from homes where the daily budget for the whole family is no more than a few dollars.  

Up at Los Tiesos, a community of families made homeless by Hurricane Mitch, the sweltering heat of the midday sun didn't stop a group of smiling school kids from singing me a song, showing me their homework, and promising to study hard. The community only got electricity this year. They still have to draw their daily water from deep wells. 

At La Guayabita, a tree nursery set up to aid reforestation projects, earnest and hardworking local volunteers gave me the grand tour of the environmental projects funded by RSFLA. Nobody blinked as a porcupine scooted across our path. Nor did they find it unusual when a chocoyo (parakeet) alighted on my shoulder and started nibbling on my ear. Animal interaction is all part of a normal day in the tree nursery, apparently. 

The highlight for me had to be local Alcalde (mayor) José Angel Velásquez taking a photograph off his desk to proudly show me the moment he shook hands with Reading Mayor Jeanette Skeats during a visit to Reading in 2003. It hammered home how important the Reading-San Francisco Libre relationship is viewed here.

Having seen it for myself, I'm glad now that I made that effort to get off the beaten track and visit San Francisco Libre. It was a fantastic opportunity to spend time with the children and young adults who every day benefit in practical ways from the Twin Town relationship.

Lives are hard in San Francisco Libre, many families survive on just a few dollars a day, eking out a living by fishing in Lake Managua, or collecting firewood. The town has been battered by hurricanes, and suffers from seasonal floods and drought. But the people are resilient and resourceful and work together to solve their problems. 

The experience proved to me that small donations, if they are carefully targeted and monitored, can make a significant difference to people's lives. 

It also convinced me that if you truly want to help a country, get on a plane and visit, as every tourist dollar you spend contributes to the local economy and personal contact with the people you meet builds real and lasting bonds.  

This September I'll be heading back to Nicaragua to carry out research for a book I'm writing for the Culture Smart! series.

I hope to take more photographs that reflect the rhythms of daily life in San Francisco Libre. The next step will be to find a permanent space to exhibit them in Reading to raise awareness of the twin town connection.

In the meantime, I shall continue to upload photos to this online album and hopefully inspire others to follow in my footsteps and visit Nicaragua.

If you can't travel to San Francisco Libre yourself, you can still contribute. Even a small donation to the RSFLA will have an impact. Apreden uses the funds sent from Reading to provide local families with affordable shade and fruit trees to counter deforestation, and monthly becas (scholarships) help the poorest kids to get through school. 

The biblioteca (library) that Apreden uses for workshops and after-school clubs was built with funds from Reading and Oldenburg and has become an important community centre for the families living around it. 

The most exciting development since my visit has been the installation of wifi, again with funds from Reading and Oldenburg. Students can now surf the Internet on laptops provided by the RSFLA and the priority now is to get them communicating in real time with Reading, sharing their images and experiences and further building ties between the two communities.

To see how I get on in Nicaragua, and perhaps learn a little more about this fascinating Central American country, follow me on Instagram and Twitter - @latamtravelist - and browse through my photographs on Flickr.

To learn more about the Reading San Francisco Libre Association (RSFLA), make a donation, or volunteer, visit their website or Facebook page. They are also active on Twitter.

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