Sunday, February 24, 2013

Giving back: the Calzedo Kids run

Ometepe has a large population of dogs and puppies. Photo Jason Guidusko.
Omeptepe is a beautiful island formed by two volcanoes joined by an isthmus giving it an hourglass shape. Maderas and Concepcion volcanoes, both of the recent Holocene Epoch, rise from Lake Nicaragua around 5,000 feet with wispy clouds of condensed volcanic gasses encircling the summit of Concepcion. The flanks of this active stratovolcano are made from pyroclastic deposits and loose tephra from its previous eruptions, the most recent of which was in 2010. On the majestic Maderas volcano, plantain crops, coffee and tobacco plantations give way to rainforest on its flanks offering hikers breathtaking views from the summit crater. The island is inhabited by nearly 30,000 people as well as numerous dogs and horses that roam freely through the plantain fields and towns. While appearing very thin by American standards, these populations are clearly very healthy and thriving with little human intervention.

Concepcion volcano from Lake Nicaragua

The sheer beauty of Ometepe carries a magical experience shared by all who visit. It isn't to say that this beautiful island is without problems. The people of Ometepe are very poor; homes are dilapidated and tools and resources are in limited supply. Another quite apparent problem on the island is that of trash disposal. The municipalities of Ometepe do not offer any trash removal from the island, so the only viable means of trash removal is to burn it. The larger towns, such as Moyogalpa, are shrouded in a low lying smoke, much like the summit of the Concepcion volcano lies in its own cloud of gas. Loose trash lines the streets, beaches, and public areas throughout the island.

My journey to Ometepe had two purposes. One was to be a part of the inaugural 75K Fuego Y Agua Survival Run and the other was to take advantage of an opportunity to give back to the community that would host our event. The day before the event there would be an island clean up and the day following the races there would be opportunities to volunteer for the Calzado Kids run. The kids run was a 3K race for island children where all participants would receive a t-shirt, finisher's medal and a pair of new or gently used running shoes donated by volunteers and participants from the Fuego Y Agua event. I came to the island toting 15 pairs of gently used shoes donated from friends and family, extra pairs of new socks, and a laptop that served no purpose at home. I felt confident that coming from an affluent country with excess material goods surely I had something of offer the villagers of Ometepe to improve the quality of their lives. What I didn't realize was that the villagers of Ometepe would give more to me than I could ever possibly give back to them.
Me with some of the local kids I met who were playing a pick-up game of soccer with an empty Coke bottle.

On my first day in Moyogalpa, my friend Lani and I rented bicycles to explore the nearby area and stretch our legs as we acclimated to the hot, humid conditions of Nicaragua. We toured the region taking in everything: the landscape, the culture and the animals of the island. We traveled down the road in fresh, clean sundresses and sunhats (OK, that was just me) and being used to my $1,000 mountain bike, I promptly busted the chain on my rental bicycle by applying too much pressure to the pedals. I tried to figure out how to repair the chain, but without any tools, I was at a total loss. Within minutes, a man emerged from a nearby home and offered to have his son fix my bike. Figuring that they would not have bicycle tools, I politely declined in broken Spanish, but he insisted. Knowing I had nothing to lose, we sat near the road and watched the boy's mother as she swept dirt in the front yard. It was evident that the Nicaraguan people were very clean people who take great pride in their appearance and care of their homes, despite being uninhabitable by western standards. A few small children emerged and Lani and I took pictures of them much to their delight. The boy clanged on the chain with a good sized stone and wheeled the bicycle back within minutes at the request of only 10 cordobas (US about 43 cents) for his efforts. I was incredibly grateful for the help and the graciousness of the family. I was humbled by the realization that these people were not really handicapped by the lack of tools that I have become so reliant upon: they have simply adapted using simper tools.

Hundreds of pairs of shoes donated for the Calzedo Kids run.

After 4 days on Ometepe, the day finally arrived for the Calzado Kids run- the event I had been looking forward to since before I arrived in Nicaragua. About a dozen Fuego Y Agua ultra and survival runners were given our assignment which was to prepare and man two water stations for the 650 children who would soon fill the streets if Moyogalpa. About a half dozen of us were dropped off just outside of town and we prepared water cups for the runners who would soon be upon us.
At the starting line, the children were given their new running shoes and lined up in color coded t-shirts of their respective communities. Some wore their new sneakers right away, others proudly carried them for the duration of the 3 km race. The runners made their way to our aid station and their smiles and joy were infectious.
Calzedo Kids run. Photo Louise Lakier Photography

Volunteers at water station #2

As the racers passed, I stood in the middle of the road with handfuls of cups announcing " le gusta el agua". The kids laughed at my terrible Spanish, but seemed to appreciate my effort. One thing that struck me was that despite the fact that the island was littered with trash, after drinking water, every child either placed their used cup back on the water station table or followed me to give it back. One little girl even chased down my hat after it was taken by a gust of wind and waited patiently for a chance to place it back on my head. I said "¡muchas gracias!" and she giggled and continued on to catch up to her brothers.
Adam and Matt mid-pack running alongside the kids in the Calzedo Kids Run

 In this moment, I realized something about the people of Ometepe that had taken me all week to articulate: they are happy, kind, proud and wonderful people. I felt a little embarrassed at my own assumption that poor meant unsatisfied and that I was somehow superior to the inhabitants of this small third-world island. In truth, I wonder if perhaps their simpler lives without the clutter of materialism of the industrialized world are better off? How is happiness and quality of life defined anyway? 
This isn't to say that there are not environmental issues threatening the future of the island that need to be addressed to preserve its beauty for future generations, but really, how much industrial intervention is really needed or desired?

Upon reaching the finish line, kids blanketed the town of Moyogalpa. Many stopped to pose with their medals when they saw that I had a camera and asked to view the preserved images of themselves on the tiny screen of my little digital Panasonic point and shoot. A glimpse into one another's worlds that perhaps is best left as separate as the 3,000 miles that lie in between us.
Post race posing for the camera


"It's a mystery to me. We have a greed with which we have agreed. You think you have to want more than you need. Until you have it all you won't be free. Society, you're a crazy breed. I hope you're not lonely without me."

-Eddie Vedder
Finish line poses after the kids run with RD Josue Stephens



    1. Estoy completamente de acuerdo. Espero volver el año que viene.