Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Managua: The working life

Our house has a room for a servant.
Well, not a room really. More like a cell. Nine feet long, less than six feet wide. There’s a single bed and sink, toilet and shower. A small window high up on one wall, three hooks to hang clothes.
We don’t have a ‘chica,’ the term generally used for the woman - usually young - who cleans the house, cooks meals and looks after the children.
Better a bad job than no job
In Honduras, Rosa came once a week to clean. Often, she brought her children. On cleaning days, I tidied the house before they got there and then went to buy soft drinks for her and any children who showed up. (I’m not using her real name.)
We didn’t need anyone to clean our small house. But Rosa was a single mom. Her husband, her charming nine-year-old daughter told me soon after we met, drank too many beers, dove into the river near their tiny house, hit his head on a rock and died. We visited their house just before we left - two rooms, dirt floor, concrete block walls, wood cooking fire, water from a tap just down the hill, broken treadle sewing machine out the back. Rosa had taken a sewing course and invited us to her graduation, where she wore a pale blue satin dress she had made. 
Here in Nicaragua, house cleaners are entitled to a minimum wage of $235 a month Canadian. That’s for a six-day work week, 12 hours a day. About 75 cents an hour. And employers can deduct up to 50 per cent for room and board.
We don’t need, or want a cleaner. I’d feel guilty about paying too little, foolish paying too much for a service I didn’t even want and hate the idea of sharing our house. But I know the job, poorly paid or not, would have been welcomed by someone.
A Cuso International placement plunks you into the middle of life in another country. You move beyond the statistics about GDP per capita ($42,000 in Canada and $4,500 here) and begin to understand what it means to live in a poor country. 
The Nicaraguan government sets minimum wages for different types of jobs. They increased eight or nine per cent this year, a jump that met the business community’s desire to avoid double-digit raises, but reflected the need to increase incomes, a six-per-cent inflation rate and the fact this is an election year.
The highest paid category - people who work in construction or financial institutions - has a minimum salary of $335 a month. Agricultural workers have a minimum wage of $150, government workers about $190. 
Some people are paid above the minimum wage, of course. But most are paid less. About 70 per cent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economy and minimum wages and other labour rules don’t apply. 
It’s a poor country. Second poorest in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank, ahead of perpetually lowest-ranked Haiti. And I have seen really poor people, living in houses of sticks and mud, sometimes worse.
But there are people with money here. We can walk to a mall and see a movie in a theatre nicer than any in Victoria. People line up for $4 lattes, and restaurants with prices in American dollars do well. Another mall has just completed a $36 million expansion with some flashy clothes stores. I’m going to buy a few shirts from Pull and Bear before we head to Canada. 
Partly, the issue is inequality. In Canada, the people in the top 20 per cent have an average income about six times as great as the people in the bottom 20 per cent. In Nicaragua, they have an average income 11 times higher. 
All of which makes development work interesting. A focus on getting people into the labour market isn’t necessarily productive, given low wages and limited opportunity. CATIE, my organization, is working on increasing incomes and food security for rural agricultural families. That makes sense.
More than one-third of Nicaraguans have a different solution in mind. A survey last month found 36 per cent of Nicaraguans were interested in emigrating. (Down from 52 per cent a year ago.) But they don’t want to stay away - more than 60 per cent of those interested in emigrating saw it as a way to make enough money to come home and start a business (38 per cent), pay debts or buy a house, or as an opportunity to study and improve their skills before returning to Nicaragua.
Which suggests Canada’s biggest development contribution could be opening the door a bit wider for people just looking for a chance to get ahead.

Friday, February 26, 2016

All in all, I'd rather have cheap, bad buses

I've begun to treat my bus ride to work as a sign of how the day is going to go.
If I have an OK seat, not too crunched, and arrive not limping, I bounce away from the bus singing. Nod cheerily to the man with the wire cages full of puppies and the two guys who spend their days turning pallets into furniture by the side of the road.
It's an easy commute. I walk about 10 minutes to the Carreterra Masaya, the main road south out of Managua. Cross to a bus stop and wait.
A lot of buses are going my way, heading to towns in the south and passing my office about five km down the road. I rarely wait more than five minutes.
About a quarter of the time I'm on "la famosa banquita," as a newspaper described the little bench on the right in the photo above. It's less than ideal. The roof is often so low my chin is resting on my chest, and we passengers intertwine knees in an intimate way.
Those little benches are apparently illegal, the newspaper revealed this week.
The real surprise to me was that there are are rules. I thought it was a free-for-all. Buses cram in as many people as they can, stack freight on the roof or in the aisle. Seats are always ripped out and replaced with smaller versions, closer together. In Canada, I'm average size. On the buses, I am Andre the Giant. And the only gringo.
La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario reported this week that bus drivers in the north are angry they are being fined for having passengers standing in the aisle or sitting on that little bench, and for carrying too much freight or speeding.
I had no idea standing was prohibited. I can choose between three bus types most days. Minivans of varying sizes. Aged school buses. And those airport-shuttle-sized minibuses.
The shuttle buses are the worst. The aisles are about 10 inches wide, literally, and the ayudantes - the conductors who collect the money and encourage people into the bus at each stop - cram them with people. The process of fighting my way off, brushing bums and stepping on feet, begins to worry me long before my stop.
The minivans, if you wait for one with some space, are fine. Less so if people, doubled over under the low roof, are standing in every available spaces.
The aged school buses are slow and wrecked, but cheaper - 35 cents compared to 50 cents for the other two options - and they aren't crowded. A status thing, I think. Though they too have been reworked, seats replaced to allow more rows.
None of them have ever seemed to operate under any rules. People are jammed in relentlessly and even if you have a seat someone's sweaty stomach - or worse - will be resting on you shoulder, a baby balanced on your head, a satchel in your face.
In Belize, a somewhat more orderly country with rules against standing passengers, we were on a bus approaching a police checkpoint. The driver called out "Down." Everyone standing in the aisle crouched in a choreographed movement worth of Busby Berkeley and we sped through looking like a bus full of seated people.
That wouldn't work here. It is often impossible to move, let alone pretend to be seated.
The bus drivers say that if the police are going to start enforcing the rules, bus fares are going to have to increase 35 per cent
That seems reasonable. Bus prices are cheap, less than $3 Canadian for the 90-km trip to Leon. That's partly because they carry a lot of people and speed sometimes. Take that away, and prices will go up.
It's hard to criticize the government for working on bus safety. The boat disaster brought attention to the whole transportation issue.
And there have been a few bad bus crashes too. This week, Pedro García Urbina was sentenced to one to four years in jail. His bus ran off the road Jan. 21. Eight people died, 66 were hurt and the court found he was speeding and the bus was overcrowded and badly maintained. (I don't know how fair the justice system is, but it's quick. Crash Jan. 21, guilty verdict less than six weeks later.)
I've had a few bad drivers, and obviously bad buses. It's very unpleasant to stand for four hours.
But mostly, the service is fast and acceptable.
And affordable.
All in, my stipend as a volunteer is about 10 per cent below B.C. minimum wage. My daily commute this month will me cost me less than $20. Somebody being paid minimum wage will pay $85 to take the bus to work in Victoria.
Today, I crossed the highway from work and was on a minibus in about three minutes. The interior was full, and I ended up in the front, arm out the window, watching to try and catch volcano Momotombo exploding.
Not today.
Postscript: Managua has a city bus system too, 12 cents with an electronic pass card, 25 cents if you're paying cash. My partner Jody Paterson wrote about her commute here.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Nothing like a boat disaster to help you think about risk

I've been thinking about my sense of travel risks since last week's boat disaster.
Pangas - heavy fibreglass open boats, generally with a couple of big outboards - run between Corn Island and Little Corn Island, off the Nicaraguan mainland in the Caribbean. The airport is on Corn Island, a lot of people want to stay on quieter Little Corn and the boats ferry people the 15 kms between the two.
A sometimes bumpy ride, as my writer friend Matt Jones describes here.
On Jan. 23, the winds had prevented sailings for at least a day, and tourists were getting impatient. A group of Costa Rican travellers stranded on Little Corn arranged a trip with Captain Hilario Blandón, who ended up with 32 passengers on board, plus his helper.
It went wrong. About five kms from Little Corn, three waves hit the boat. The first rocked it and all the passengers slid to one side, sending the boat into a dangerous list. A second wave dumped them in the water. A third flipped the boat.
Twenty-one people were rescued. Thirteen died.
After four years in Central America, I can easily imagine myself standing on the dock on Little Corn, impatient to head to to the next destination. Checking out the boat, deciding the captain knew what he was doing and climbing on board.
You get used to sketchy transportation options in poor countries. Crowded, beat-up buses with bald tires and texting drivers, or a four-hour ride on a plank seat in the open back of a truck. Perhaps too used to them.
Early in our time in Honduras, Cuso International was worried about security as the murder rate became the highest in the world. I helped with a survey of volunteers about their concerns.
Transportation was the big issue, not crime. Bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles, unreliable buses.
I've only been alarmed a few times by bus drivers who seemed to have crossed some line of basic sense.
But the boat disaster was a good reminder that you're responsible for your safety here.
The captain might not know what he's doing. The boat might not have enough life jackets or they might be homemade and useless, as they apparently were in this case.
The whole trip might be in defiance of safety warnings. (Some news stories have said the naval authorities had ordered boats not to sail; others say that's not true. The captain and helper have been charged with negligent homicide.)
The reality is that if you were super security conscious and paid attention to every warning you probably wouldn't leave your house.
I don't think we're reckless, but we do rely a lot on instinct when it comes to walking or taking a cab, leaping onto a jammed bus or waiting, or deciding whether to pay for a tour or accept the challenge of standing by a dark highway at night hoping a bus comes along.
But the boat disaster is a good reminder not to get too comfortable.
That happens. A Danish traveller almost had his backpack taken on a bus, until Nicaraguans warned him about the departing thief. We talked, and he said he had been on the road for almost two months. He never would have been so inattentive in his first few weeks, he said, but everything had gone so well.
I expect it's like that in assessing other risks too. Nothing goes wrong, so you are more inclined to leap from the dock into the boat. Which might explain how we ended up hitchhiking on a deserted road at dusk in Honduras, having counted on buses that didn't run in the late afternoon. Oh, and with grandchildren.
That turned out fine. We piled into the back of a suspiciously expensive truck and were back in town in about 45 minutes. You can, mostly, count on the kindness of strangers.
It's an interesting balance for travellers, or people living in a different country.
Not careful enough, and you might get hurt. Too careful, and you miss out on great experiences.
The disaster sent the Nicaraguan authorities into a belated boat safety campaign. They shut down the three main boats sailing to the island of Ometepe, a popular tourist destination in Lake Nicaragua - or Cocibolca, as it was named by indigenous people. It took two days for the owners to scrounge up life jackets and other safety equipment, as angry tourists and locals sat on the docks.
We took the boat to Ometepe last year. It seemed safe enough sitting in the sun on the top deck. But I didn't really think about how I'd get to a life jacket as we bounced through the waves.
Maybe next time I will.
But I'll still probably climb off the dock and on to the boat.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A tale of three newspapers: Nanaimo, Guelph and Kelowna. Two closed, one survives

The Guelph Mercury was selling about 9,000 papers in a metro area of 155,000 people. It closed.
The Nanaimo Daily News was selling about 5,000 papers in a market of about 100,000.
Gone.
But the Kelowna Daily Courier, selling about 8,900 papers in a market of 180,000, survives.
What's different, besides the normal variations in markets?
In Guelph and Nanaimo, the same company owned both the daily newspaper and the community newspaper.
Metroland, a Toronto Star subsidiary, could close the Guelph Mercury knowing it would capture much of the ad revenue with its twice-weekly. Maybe even raise rates once the main print competitor was gone.
Black Press has the same control in Nanaimo, thanks to its deal to trade papers with Glacier Media a little over a year ago.
But in Kelowna, Black Press owns the three-times-a-week Capital News. David Radler owns the daily. And he shows no interest in closing it.
The future is bleak for daily newspapers in markets like these. In Nanaimo and Kelowna, the population has grown as people from away, as they say in Saint John, decided it was a good place to retire. They're not much interested in local news. (In fact, if they had a strong commitment to community, they wouldn't have picked up and left friends and family behind.)
But it's a lot bleaker when one owner has been able to eliminate competition between the community and daily newspapers.
The federal Competition Bureau has been useless in this area. It has primarily considered whether advertising rates will rise as a result of merger or acquisition. (Marc Edge looked at the Competition Bureau and newspapers in a Tyee piece.)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Ralph Sultan's very odd letter of instruction to Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant voters

Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant, when Ralph Sultan lived there
Odd.
That's the only way I can describe MLA Ralph Sultan's letter on The Tyee website.
The Tyee published a piece on the Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant provincial byelection, profiling the candidates. The Liberal hopeful, Gavin Dew, didn't respond to interview requests. So no quotes from him. (Disorganized campaign? A strategic decision? Just one of those things? Who knows.)
Sultan was disappointed that his former campaign manager - Dew has been active in the BC Liberals and Vancouver´s NPA - wasn't in the article. Sultan wanted to help his campaign. So he wrote a letter, which The Tyee graciously published.
It might seem strange, he acknowledged, that the MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano was telling people in Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant how to vote. Sultan's riding is the wealthiest in B.C. - half the households have incomes over $100,000. Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant has the lowest incomes in the province - less than half the level of Sultan's constituents.
"What on earth would the sitting member for West Vancouver-Capilano (me) presume to say to the citizens of Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant?" Sultan asked in his letter.
A very good question.
Sultan says his roots are in the riding. He grew up there.
But a quick look at his bio confirms he lived in the riding in the 1930s and 1940s.  A lot has changed since then.
Sultan's letter says voters in the riding shouldn't worry about income assistance and disability rates that leave many of their neighbours in poverty. The Liberals are redeveloping St. Paul's Hospital and had a conference on the tech industry and Chinatown is doing well. They have done well on jobs and economic growth. (One of those things people probably judge based on their own experiences.)
I can't imagine how Sultan's intervention from the heights of West Van or the Liberal offices in the legislature will help Dew. Sultan is hardly a household name. His qualifications are impressive and frequently cited - Harvard PhD and professor, former chief economist for the Royal Bank, successful mining career.
But it's harder to point to highlights from his record as an MLA over the last 15 years. He was appointed to cabinet in 2012, and dropped nine months later.
Maybe there have been big contributions behind closed doors. But based on the public record, Sultan is  unlikely to sway many voters in Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant with tales of yore and recounting of generic party platform material.

Postscript
Dew's campaign bio sets out his educational background in a way that suggests he followed in Sultan's footsteps at Harvard.
"He went on to complete an MBA at Oxford and study crisis management at Harvard," the bio says.
Except he only spend six days at Harvard, in a continuing education course, as Andrew MacLeod reports here.
It's hard to say if a six-day course really justifies the claim. I did a 10-day course at a fancy business school in France, but would feel like a fraud if I claimed I went on to "study management there."

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Sparwood 'Bogeyman' who slipped through the cracks

From my piece in The Tyee today.

Randall Hopley, the Sparwood bogeyman, was back in the news last week.
Hopley is the scrawny loner who grabbed three-year-old Kienan Hebert from his bed and held him for four days in 2011. Hopley then eluded a massive RCMP manhunt and snuck Kienan, unhurt, back into the family home, leaving him snugly wrapped in a blanket. It took another three days for police to catch Hopley.
It was a rare story that justified the news media cliché "every parent's worst nightmare." Kienan was a cute kid from a caring family. Hopley was a 46-year-old loner with a long criminal record who lived in a trailer and drove a clapped out 24-year-old Toyota. Police released pictures that showed an unshaven man with blotchy skin and a bad haircut.
But Hopley was also a perfect example of how badly things can go when we don't do anything to deal with a little kid's problems and just boot him into the world.

The kidnapping was one of the chapters in Dead Ends: B.C. Crime Stories, my book published last year. (Available in fine bookstores or through Amazon and Chapters.) The story was gripping. But so was Hopley's sad life.

Check out the rest of the column here.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Letter from Managua: Bright lights, poor country


If you’re in a window seat, you probably see the giant yellow trees of life before you land in Managua.
They’re hard to miss. About 21 metres tall - imagine a five-storey building - and 13 metres across, 17,000 bright yellow lights on each one. Some 134 and counting are scattered across Managua - in the centre of rotondas (roundabouts), in boulevards and in a dense array along Avenida Bolivar, the main street leading down to the lakefront.
‘Que bonita,’ we said to our taxi driver as we drove past the trees one night early in our stay a year ago. 
He grunted. A lot of people without electricity in their houses, he said, and the government is putting up pretty trees. Who’s paying the bills to keep the lights on? What do they cost? 
Good questions, and the first indication that the trees - pretty as they are - were not universally beloved.
The trees are a pet project of Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega. Murillo, who is also communications minister and the only spokesperson for the government, is interesting - educated in England and Switzerland, a revolutionary and a poet who appears in public draped in flowing scarves and a dizzying number of bracelets, necklaces and rings.
Murillo had the first eight metal trees put up in 2013 for the annual rally to celebrate the 1979 Sandinista victory and and the resignation of Antonio Somoza. The design is based Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting of the tree of life, a powerful image. 
Since then, Murillo has kept on planting the metal trees around around the city. The
Rotonda Hugo Chavez near our old house had three of them and a giant illuminated portrait of the late Venezuelan president, a benefactor of Nicaragua.
When we returned from Canada in September, a new copse of trees had appeared in different colours. The bright yellow has been joined by greens and blues and reds and purples. 
There is a small forest in the new waterfront park on Lake Managua, and the push is on to have more ready by December and La Purisma - celebrating the conception of Mary - and Christmas. On our way home from a play last week, we spotted the white-hot lights as welders assembled more trees in a field near the central square.(Why is there a field near the central square? A 1972 earthquake flattened the city and aid that was supposed to support rebuilding was stolen by the Somozas. Managua was rebuilt in a sprawling, decentralized way. Some 43 years after the earthquake, the old cathedral on the main square is still unsafe to enter.)
La Prensa, one of the two main newspapers, has been taking a critical look at the trees of life. The stories noted the cost, at $25,000 U.S. each, is now about $3.4 million. The electricity bill is about $1.1 million a year, La Prensa said. 
That’s a lot of money in a poor country. At least 30 per cent of Nicaraguans live in poverty. Probably more. About 22 per cent of the population didn’t have electricity in 2012, according to the World Bank.
La Prensa found experts to say what could have been done with the money spent on the electric trees - replant the region around Managua with real trees, or bring electricity to thousands of homes.
I understand politics in Canada. I figured out the politics of Honduras in about six months.
But Nicaragua is more complex. 
The media aren’t much help. The newspapers are anti-Ortega. La Prensa, in every story that mentions Ortega, refers to him as the “unconstitutional president.” (The constitution limited presidents to one term; that was changed to allow Ortega to continue to govern. He’s on his third term.) The TV stations are largely pro-government. 
There are big protests, especially about the government’s plan to let a Chinese billionaire build a canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. But a Cid Gallup poll last month found 66 per cent of Nicaraguans gave Ortega a positive approval rating. The opposition is divided and, from my perspective as a visitor, ineffectual.
And after 36 years, Daniel Ortega’s role as leader of the Sandinista revolution is still powerful. We rented a house in Leon earlier this year. There was a little red and black concrete monument, a couple of feet tall, that said our neighbourhood was called the Barrio 4 de Mayo, in honour of four young men dragged from their homes by Somoza’s National Guard and killed on May 4, 1979, barely two months before the revolution triumphed. 
Our neighbour told Jody how her two brothers were executed in the street, where children now played.
Maybe Ortega has disappointed. Maybe the trees are a wasteful extravagance. But many Nicaraguans remember how it used to be, in the days when death came in the night.

Murillo seemed unchastened by the media attention. More trees would be going up, bringing “beauty, colour and love” to Managua, she told the media.