Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 25: Mark's Perspective

It is early, Curt and I are tired, he falls asleep on the toilet; getting up this morning is hard.

Maria picks us up and brings us to the Sheraton (Barack Obama stayed here 2 days ago) where the convention is held.  The two of us get some breakfast and our energy beings to come back to us (best coffee of the trip!).  2:00 roles around, Curt and I have been here at the hotel since 9:30 as we take shifts between tweaking our presentation and napping. 

Presentation goes amazing; Victor translates for us.  Victor is an awesome person, we all wish we got to know him sooner than the last few days of the trip. As Kim mentioned, Curt sang 'Long many you run' by Neil young at the end of our presentation while slides of our trip flipped through on the screen.  We hear pockets of the audience laugh or clap as most people in the room have been a part of our trip at one time or another.  You can see people emotional, I am too.

This is it; the climax.  One month of travel and this is our moment of thanks and reflection.

People approach us after and tell us that in 8 years, this is the best GSE presentation they have ever seen.  Their sincerity is welcoming and it certainly makes us feel great that they enjoyed our journey.

At this point: mixed emotions.  Two days left, a bit of a wind-down and it feels like this trip is finishing.  I want to stay, maybe continue to Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, but I miss Jess.  I can't wait to share with her and others our story.

I am going to miss meeting new, amazing, passionate people.  People prepared to share, love, create.  We have been in their homes and they are in our hearts.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

“Once in a while, we are given real moments of grace” ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Finished with a bang!

Yesterday, our team completed the final presentation and it was a huge success. Compliment after compliment, it was hard to digest that it was the last time our team would present in Central America. As I looked out at the crowd of people and saw the many familiar faces of those who have hosted us over the past month, it was hard to hold back the tears. Of course, Curt was singing in the background “Long May You Run” by Neil Young, so that didn’t help!

Together, our team traveled to four very different countries, saw many cultural and historical places, visited many beaches, and tasted a variety of new fruits, vegetables, meats and Rums.

We toured Cathedrals, coffee plantations, Rum factories, museums, embassies, schools, community development projects, small towns and villages, theaters, and ancient ruins.

We climbed volcanoes and surfed down one! We rode horses and bikes, swam in the ocean, learned to dance Salsa, Rumba and Merengue, and spent over 40 hours on the TicaBus together.

We laughed together, cried together, were exhausted together, were ill together, and received good news and bad news, together.

We became family and a special bond has been cultivated between us: That is what I will remember most about this trip. You can travel to the most exciting places in the world and see the most amazing things, but nothing leaves an impression on you like the people you have shared it with. Alicia, Curt, Mark and Doug have left a very big impression on my heart: Four amazing personalities and four very big hearts.

I am changed, I am moved, and I am a better person for knowing you.

Thanks for all the laughter, love and memories:)


~ What if becoming who and what we truly are happens not through striving and trying but by recognizing and receiving the people and places and practices that offer us the warmth of encouragement we need to unfold? ~
                                                                                              ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer 

Memories from the Conference

Friday, March 25, 2011

In the News

The Barrie Examiner has been following us for the last few weeks:

Rotary members exchange ideas in Central America

Exchange an eye-opener


The Leader Has Spoken

As we enter the home stretch of this incredible journey , it is time to pause and reflect on what we have all been through over the past three and half weeks . With many ups and very few downs, as Team Leader , I am pleased to report that our Team has been a pleasure to lead ( we are not sure who is leading whom ?) and the energy and enthusiasm with which our four young professionals have conducted themselves has greatly exceeded my expectations . For sure ,friendships have been made that will be lasting both within the Team and throughout the four Countries we have had the priviledge of calling home since our departure from Canada on February 27th .

It has also been a pleasant surprise to us that the blog has created such a huge following of interested readers ( over 5000 viewers) from all over the world and I thank the Team Members ( Curt and Mark esp) who have been so diligent ( dare I say obsessive ) in completing the Blog on a regular basis with such an editorial and creative flare. I also would like to congratulate myself on doing such a great job of delegating this important task to our Team Members whose talents and interests shine in this area ( Well done Doagmooodieeee).

As the Blog demonstrates, we have had very different experiences in all four countries; however, it is equally clear that we are seeing common threads throughout and it is on this point I would like to elaborate - as it speaks to the very essence of Rotary's objective for the Group Study Exchange which has been in existence for 30 + years

Without exception, we are being greeted and hosted by committed Rotarians and their families as they take us into their homes unconditionally. We arrive after 12 hour bus rides ( sometimes unexpectedly ) with our dirty laundry and hungry stomachs and we are welcomed into their homes as if we are faimily ( or in some cases royalty!). A Hosts' responsibility is to give us a bed and breakfast - period. However, as you have seen from the Blog, in some instances, our Hosts have accommodated us all and have been our Guides and chauffeurs for the week . The Comittment is incredible and we are seeing Rotarians who spend a great deal of their personal time helping the impoverished in their commuunities and beyond . It is clear that they are doing it in an incredibly modest and humble way with the sole intention of helping improve the quality of life for the less fortunate - because they can ! Interestingly, the People they are trying to help are proud, pleasant people , who , while very appreciative of the assistance , do not feel they have been hard done by ; rather , we have seen generous gestures of sharing during our visits to their simple communities such as offerings of fruit by Elders and the sharing of candies from the pinitias by the kids.
As Team Leader and a Rotarian , it is important to me that we take away as much from this experience as possible with a view to helping these people in need . In this regard , it is important that this four week "Mission" is the just the beginning of our journey . The people we have met and the Projects we have seen are an introduction for us to match Rotary Clubs in our District in Canada with Clubs and projects in Central America . Our Blog will help serve as a chronology of Contacts and projects - indeed the work has just begun for all of us.


The Mushy Gushy Stuff

I am laying in bed right now, eyes wide open despite the opportunity to sleep in this morning.  The warm sunshine and day's expectations motivate me to move.  As we have learned over the course of the trip, my strengths rarely include specific numbers or estimations, however there are some important faces that will never leave my memory...some Salvadorian people that have yet to be mentioned:
Lilliana - my host the first night in Santa Ana and our local guide
Lily and Hanns - the hosts for Km and me in San Salvador

That is just a quick sample of the compassionate and welcoming people we have had the opportunity to meet over the past 4 weeks. These remarkable Rotarians and community members define our experience with their warmth and hospitality.  A common phrase (regardless of their English language capabilities) is: my house is your house (mi casa, su casa)- which is said with great sincerity.

As Mark mentioned, seeing the familiar faces at the conference is exciting and overwhelming, as it brings you back to all the smiles, laughter and conversations that you have had with each person.  Not everyone can make it to the conference and some will be missed (shout out to Andy and Ros, Manuel, and many more), but one can't help but feel like they are a part of this big family stretching across 4 very distinct countries in Central America.

Other memorable moments include:

  • In Santa Ana with both clubs, having our Canadian anthem played in addition to the Salvadorian anthem (the selected version also included French/English!);
  • Juan standing up with the GSE team when introduced at the conference - member #6? Eyda who just nods in acknowledgement;
  • Roberto, our Nicaraguan host, first words a week since we left "I needed to see you";
  • San Miguel group (whom we didn't visit due to the miscommunication error) inviting us back, despite our first missed opportunity;
  • a great big bear hug from Dawn, a familiar and remarkable face to see after 4 weeks of travel;
  • my other hosts in Santa Ana, Jose and his wonderful family - sitting, staring, smiling and nodding awkwardly, upon our first meeting, with Spanglish hardly even being an option.
A common question we receive - "What was our favourite place and/or most memorable moments?"  I struggle to answer this one with anything definite because you simply can't give every country the justice it deserves, and each one offers entirely different things from the other.  What stands out to me, in the wise words of a Rotarian is: we are all here, we are all connected, by our common vision to make a difference in our communities.  How true of an observation.  Some of our best memories were meeting people who really demonstrated passion through their professions or involvement in Rotary projects. It's the people who make a country, and I feel honoured (as do my teammates) to have been a part of their lives, big or small.

Gearing up for our day now! Excited to see loved ones, sad to leave here but comforting in knowing we will return.


March 24: Mark's Perspective

12:30am right now, Curt and I are sharing a room at a Rotarian named Carlos in  San Salvador.  My turn to blog; Curt just put his head down on the pillow and said "make me sound intelligent."  No promises.  30 seconds and he is snoring... really snoring.

We had a full day as expected.  It started with breakfast and a quick visit to Roberto's family's call center company (awk I know).  Roberto Eduardo Guerra (24 years old) has been a key role in having us in Santa Ana.  He is a Rotaract President and founder of the club that is only 9 months old and is currently a medical student.  He deserves a shout out for all the work he has done to take care of us.
Roberto and his girlfriend
We drive 20 minutes out of Santa Ana to Lago de Coatepeque (Lake of Coatepeque).  The lake is the crater of a volcano - dark blue water, warm on the top, extremely cold below. 

We are here with the Rotaract club and we enjoy each others company at a private club.  Our time is filled with laughter and camaraderie.  Doug pays $20 for a half hour boat ride for 15 people.  When we return, Curt plays the guitar by the pool.  We enjoy every last part of this tranquil visit as the Rotary conference starts tonight and we will have a busy next few days.

We arrive in San Salvador.  Alicia and Kim are staying together for the last few nights and Doug will be solo, Curt and I get picked up by Carlos.  15 minutes to shower and we are off to the district conference.
It is overwhelming!  Lots of key people that we have met over the last 4 weeks are in one room and we cannot keep up with the greetings.
 Two familiar faces we gravitate to are Juan and Eyda (Juan is the rum tycoon from Panama that we stayed with on his estate).  We get to see Dawn Straka, the district governor for our area back in Canada.  She has visited the area quite a few times due to her involved in wheelchair donations.

It is a night of socialization outside on the museum's property, a beautiful venue... I am tired.  Tomorrow we will present to the district conference.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 23 Perspective

Best breakfast yet. These are the best Huevos Rancheros I have had in Central America. Fresh squeezed pineapple juice, great coffee, and a piece of pecan pie complete the meal. I am a happy man to start the day.

The breakfast pours colour back into Kim's face, and light into her eyes. WELCOME BACK SOLDIER! We're off to tour a coffee mill: J Hill y CIA. It's beautiful, from storage barns, to the drying lots, to the sorting room, to the greenhouses. We snap pictures, and listen intently on all the steps required to make a pot or cup of coffee.

It's very impressive, and they have even converted their office computers to run off a bank of solar panels and batteries. Interesting for me, as my girlfriend Laura and I live the same way in Canada (thanks for introducing me to a no-bills lifestyle LT).

There is also the most amazing tree I've ever seen in my life on the property. It is a cotton tree, and is over 250 years old. I want to see this tree again before I die.
Two espressos, and we're off to Liliana's house for supplies, restrooms, and to see her two little dogs.
We head into the mountains, stopping in a small town near the peak to tour around. There's a cute artisan shop that makes their own clothing, unfortunately the loom staff are on lunch, so we don't see any action.
After getting a few gifts for those of you at home, we sampled some new fruits (to us) in the market, and then headed for lunch. A few minutes out of town we dined at a restaurant situated on a coffee plantation. It had cabins for rent, as well as numerous facilities for wedding receptions and even it's own chapel for ceremonies. The experience was top notch, from the chunky menus with tin fronts, to the amazing meal...tortilla soup, crostini w funghi, spinach lasagna w salad...
We head back down the mountain, stopping a few times at lookouts to enjoy the view, and snap some photos. Kim and I pass out in the back of the van, listening to a great mix of Be Good Tanyas, Joe Purdy, and Wailin' Jennys. 
After a quick blog and clean-up at home, we're headed to a big supper. A father/son team (Roberto Jr&Sr) host nearly 60 Rotarians/Rotaracts for dinner of typical foods. It's a social night, and they're happy to have us. We say a few thank-you's, and the guitar is out again...they want Pat Benetar (weird request), but they settle for a few others. I think they genuinely enjoy the music, or they fake well enough that I feel good about playing for them. 
The night winds down in good time, and we're in bed by 11. I'm blogging away, and Doug is sleeping. Tonight he is holding nothing back with his snoring. I close my eyes and try to figure out how to describe the sound...a baby chainsaw crossed with a congested man who swallowed his tongue...maybe?!?! 

I guess my iPod will sing me to sleep tonight...


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 22 Perspective

Maybe the busiest day of our trip so far! We start with team breakfast at Mister Donut...doesn't sound very Central American, I know, but the buffet has all the best local options: fried plantains, chorizo, beans, tortillas, eggs, etc... Alicia has another Skype interview, so we'll catch up with her later.

We go to the hospital, where we're toured around by the Rotaract Club, many of whom are med students. They are working on a project to equip an unused space with toys and games for children, as there are currently no good ways for children to entertain themselves as they wait for care.
From there we're off to the local theatre (not Doug, he has a vocational visit). It was badly damaged by earthquakes and the civil war, and has been undergoing a 20 year restoration. It still has lots of character, and amazing acoustics!

Next we meet the Mayor, who is a Rotarian! He shares with us their municipal government structure, and some of their biggest challenges. He is off on a road-trip to LA and Calgary to exchange ideas on commerce and garbage disposal. It is very interesting for me, and he is great at answering questions directly.
Next we meet a tour guide and hear the history on the cathedral. It, too, is undergoing some alterations and cleaning.

We grab an ice cream, as Kim summons energy to plod on. It is hard to watch a teammate struggle, as we've all had our down days, and know how hard it is to push on when you're sick, hot and tired.

We have lunch at Mario's seafood bar, and we all agree it's the best fish we've had on the trip. Liliana brings hre Magic Jack, and we all make a call home.

TAZUMAL - My first experience at a Meso-American ruins. It's very impressive up close, and we take our time wandering the grounds. The engineering, design, and construction are overwhelmingly impressive.

We get an hour at home to nap and clean up, and we're off to Mario's steakhouse for our first Rotary meeting in El Salvador. It's a large group comprising 2 clubs, and a Rotaract club. I play a few songs after the presentation, and the Rotaractors take us for drinks. 
We're all worried that they want to party, as we had a long day, but we end up at a nice house and enjoy a couple drinks on a patio while I play a few more songs.

A day of culture, in bed by 12, everything is going great...BUT...

Dugmooodeee snores all night in our shared room, and the 3 dogs in the house start barking at sunrise and don't stop. Wednesday will be a long day.