A Hostel with a Twist: The Growing Trend of Educational Travelling

by Sophie Watson

Carol Wood is the woman in Managua, Nicaragua, many Canadians call Mom because of her experience and warmth. With overalls on and a coral coloured T-shirt, at 34 years old, she’s too young to be the mother of any of the Canadian development workers stationed in Managua, but feisty blond-haired Carol has been in Nicaragua for several years, knows the country’s history and politics well and so when culture shock overwhelms fellow Canadians—they go running to Wood’s house. Wood has written two editions of a Ulysses-published Nicaraguan travel guide; her truck windows are not tinted; she can dance the real thing; and most importantly when you’re looking for information—she’s the best source going. Wood hosts delegations and leads tours of visiting Canadians as part of her job at the Casa Canadiense as well as supporting local community projects. The Casa is part of a new form of tourismo, the education tour packages that she coordinates might not make it into Travel & Leisure magazine as her clientele is mainly made up of young activists seeing the South for the first time and older unionists linking up with solidarity organizations. Though Nicaragua is a beautiful and diverse country, over the years tourists have been attracted to it for various reasons that are more often political than esthetic. It is the home of one of the twentieth century’s possibly most romanticized revolutions, the uprising of the Sandinistas left a legacy behind that triggered hope far outside the country’s borders. Unlike Guatemala and Mexico, there are no beautiful textiles or silver jewelry for tourists to buy. Tourists that have been to Nicaragua come home with Che Guevara, Sandinista, and revolution-slogan-filled T-shirts. In late 1999, I went to Nicaragua to profile Canadian development workers, many of whom advised me to go speak with Carol Wood.

“The way I look at it is you can’t really travel in Nicaragua without seeing that. There isn’t the tourist infrastructure here to ignore the poverty, you can’t flush toilet paper in this country, highways are few and far between,” Wood says. Nonetheless it is a beautiful country and Nicaraguans are said to be the friendliest of all Central Americans.

Wood’s background is well-rounded and explains her adaptable nature; she has a degree in French literature, she worked for a publishing company, for opera companies, helped to set up Montreal’s first Goodwill store, and worked with welfare recipients. In May 1997 Wood came to Nicaragua to work at the Casa Canadiense, a house in Managua that has evolved into a local community centre that is supported by a volunteer organization in Toronto also called Casa Canadiense. Wood’s work for the Casa involves coordinating tours, supporting projects and facilitating co-operation between Canadians and Nicaraguans. “In general what I try to do is put Canadians and Nicaraguans together—facilitating links,” Wood explains.

Nicaragua has a population of 4.3 million; 53% are under the age of 18. The second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua, has a 60% unemployment rate. With crushing international debt, the country’s already desperate situation was made worse by 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. Kids, often the only breadwinners in the family, take to the streets, selling Chiclets, washing windows, even selling themselves to get by. Many turn to glue-sniffing and crime. “The way I look at it is you can’t really travel in Nicaragua without seeing that. There isn’t the tourist infrastructure here to ignore the poverty, you can’t flush toilet paper in this country, highways are few and far between,” Wood says. Nonetheless it is a beautiful country and Nicaraguans are said to be the friendliest of all Central Americans. Casa is located in the central part of the capital city of Managua, a one-story house with a friendly Canadian flag on the front door and an annex offering dormitory-style accommodation. The main part of the house is used as a general meeting area and as a residence for Wood. For accommodation in the annex, a donation of $7 US per person per night is requested.

“Our main focus at Casa is purposely broad—it’s education,” Wood explains. The Casa gets a lot of support from teachers’ unions and from students in Canada. In 1999, two of the Casa’s biggest projects involved coordinating funds from groups in Canada to build schools in rural areas of Nicaragua—two new schools have now been completed. Wood explained the process behind one of the projects: “When the money came in from Canada, I went to the teachers’ unions here and asked if they had any communities that needed schools built. And they said, ‘Oh God where do we start?'” Wood asked the community to find a contractor who would build the school; then they went over the budget together. Wood signed a contract with the contractor; she gave him money, and he bought the necessary supplies. There are no phones in these remote areas, so Wood would periodically make the long drive to the countryside to monitor the progress of the construction. Going back and forth was tricky when sometimes during the rainy seasons, the road was completely washed out. All the labour was voluntary, but the workers received food. Wood then coordinated with the community for places to stay for the visiting Canadians. The Canadians arrived in Managua and went off to stay in the community for 10 days, helping build a cement foundation.

Another delegation that Wood received recently were from a program run out of Toronto called One-World Global Education. One-World brings kids to Central America on educational tours. The program is designed to introduce young Canadians to the realities of the South, the realities of the poor. In 1999 six youth aged 18-19 years old came to spend five months in Nicaragua. Wood coordinated their tour, took them to visit social work projects, and provided them with information, contacts and billets. Their itinerary consisted of going to Spanish school, visiting projects, living with families in barrios, going on retreats and in general getting to know how life is in a developing country.

Wood says when leading tours she tries as much as possible to find parallels with Canada so that the kids understand the concepts in a more universal context. “With this last group of teenagers we went to a visit an organization in Managua that works with glue sniffers. We went to the place where the kids live and congregate. We were there for 45 minutes talking with them and we decided we’d buy them a snack. They were all fighting and you know—sort of all over the girls—it was pretty darn intense. When we came back and we were having lunch, I said, ‘Can you think of anything equivalent in Canada?’ And of course the first reaction is, ‘Oh no—no we have nothing like that in Canada.’ And I said, ‘Well how many of you have actually been in downtown Montréal at 3:00am in the summer?'” Wood recounts and then elaborates astutely: “You don’t go on an educational tour like this where you live—but people starve to death in Canada too.”

When I ask Wood about the long-term effects of these kind of tours, she tells me that there’s a woman and a man who were members of the One World delegation four years ago who have returned twice to visit with the family they stayed with in the barrio, to bring them money and to show their support. Wood says: “Teenagers leave, changed in some way. I think that there’s a lot that happens in kids’ heads, not when they’re here necessarily because they’re going through this really intense experience and they barely have time to process what they see day-to-day but when they get home it gives them a new perspective on where they’ve been and where they’ve come from.” One youth tour participant said to me: “It just made so many things you read about in the news, not just in Nicaragua, all over the world, so much more real.” The youth keep Wood and the Casa in a special place in their memories of the trip because the Casa offers the youth  a grounding influence in such an intense landscape.

Wood tries her best to hook people up. Everytime somebody comes through the Casa who has a specific interest she puts them in touch with people who are working in that field. One visitor came down to Nicaragua to go to Spanish school and because he’s a first aid officer in his union, he had brought a bunch of medical supplies. He asked Wood if she knew anyone who could use the supplies. Wood knew of a local doctor who organizes the training of health promoters in the remotest rural areas of the country where people have no access to doctors or medicine. Wood took her guest to visit Dr. Saul’s projects which then resulted in a Canadian union funding this worthwhile project. Facilitating connections like this is imperative for the building of strong relationships of solidarity. Wood, unthwarted by bureaucratic concerns, with her take-charge manner, combined with her innumerable contacts and the advantage of actually being in the field yields many positive results while revealing the benefit of hands-on development work.

 

Originally the Casa started out serving mostly people who knew the original founders and supporters of Casa in Toronto, but they’ve now expanded their contacts base with organizations and individuals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Québec and they are still working on making contacts in Manitoba and the Maritimes. In addition to English and Spanish, Carol is fluent in French and is capable of serving Québécois clients.

I asked Wood about a celebrated American journalist who lives in Managua, hoping for some insight as to how best to approach her. Wood’s inside scoop: “God, Judy Butler can fill two tapes. Talk to her about cats, she has 8 cats. She’s great and she’ll give you lots of quotable quotes.” In addition to the scoops Wood offers, another key role Wood plays is channeling news to Canada—when Hurricane Mitch destroyed more than 60,000 people’s homes and took thousands of lives, Wood was able to send information to Canada to get the news out as the Nicaraguan government was releasing inaccurate information. As our woman in Managua, Wood’s role is invaluable in further solidifying relationships between Canadians and Nicaraguans, and by all accounts the Casa is a great place to stay when visiting Nicaragua.

For more information or to reserve accommodation at the Casa Canadiense visit: http://www.thecasa.ca/

This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in March 2000 in The Ambassador newsletter of The Council of World Affairs.

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