Latest trip to San Jose de Bocay in the works
BLACKSBURG Clark Webb and Phyllis Albritton are heading south again, recruiting a team of volunteers for the newest trek in what has been a decades-long journey of peace.
“Our mission this trip is to stave off deforestation,” Webb said last week, matter-of-factly ticking off details of an expedition to Nicaragua that is scheduled to start just after Christmas.
Webb, Albritton and their fellow organizers have until the end of October to find at least 10 people willing to shell out about $1,950 each for a trip to Blacksburg’s sister town San Jose de Bocay in northern Nicaragua. There, the group will spend five days building high-efficiency wood cooking stoves, part of a wave of such projects aimed at slowing the clearing of rainforest for fuel.
At the Blacksburg Farmers Market recently, Albritton handed out flyers and jotted down names. Most of the people who were interested seemed to be Virginia Tech students, though the trip is not limited to them.
About 50 people have accompanied Albritton and Webb south in the last four years, helping with everything from the stove-building that will continue this year to cleaning up after floodwaters reached a school built with money raised in Blacksburg.
This year’s trip is set up under the auspices of the Blacksburg/San Jose de Bocay Sister City Program and Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. The Portland, Ore.-based Green Empowerment non-profit is also helping coordinate the stove-building. Besides the time in San Jose de Bocay, this year’s trip is to include four days of eco-tourism – hiking around volcanos and taking in Pacific Coast beaches.
The annual trips of recent years are the latest facet of Albritton and Webb’s long engagement with Nicaragua. Both were among Blacksburg residents who began traveling there in the 1980s as part of national opposition to the United States’ support for the Contra rebels.
It was an era when people in Blacksburg met monthly to exchange news and lobby lawmakers to shift the direction of U.S. involvement in Central America. Weekly vigils in front of the Blacksburg post office protested policy toward the region. That activism helped forge Blacksburg’s bond with San Jose de Bocay in the 1990s.
For Albritton, the trips now are “a way to give back from our government funding of the Contra war.”
Webb, however, says it is time to move on, just as he thinks the Nicaraguan people are doing.
“It’s not so much about the past. It’s about the present and making a better future,” Webb said.
These days, “We don’t get involved in Nicaraguan politics,” he said.
Not that he downplays the links to the past.
“The thread of continuity here is how can we all work together to create a better world,” Webb said. Twenty-five years ago, that meant trying to change U.S. policy. “Now it’s to help an area that’s largely poverty-stricken,” he said.
Those going on the trip probably will come away changed as well, said Webb and others who have visited San Jose de Bocay.
“If you haven’t been to that kind of community before, it’s such a change, such a contrast,” said Jim Shotts, a Blacksburg resident and former Montgomery County supervisor who was involved in putting together the sister city partnership. Having traveled with groups to San Jose de Bocay several times during the 1990s, Shotts said it can be startling for Americans to realize “the rest of the world doesn’t live like we do.”
Albritton said she compares San Jose de Bocay to the Blacksburg of 150 years ago.
Motorized vehicles are scarce, with most transportation being by horse or foot. Farming on the steep slopes is done mostly by hand. Electricity only arrived in the 1990s with completion of a hydro-power plant designed by Ben Linder, an American engineering student who was killed by Contras. More recently, cell phone service has reached the region.
But cooking is still mostly done on open wood fires. The metal-and-brick stoves the Blacksburg work group will construct will use less fuel than open fires, and also let smoke be better channeled out of living areas.
Sam Baldwin, a former member of Tech’s Corps of Cadets who went with Webb and Albritton to Nicaragua last year, said he gained a lasting impression of how people can live happily despite difficult conditions. He particularly recalled meeting a man who had lost both legs, but seemed cheerful as he hauled himself along the road each day using his arms and two cushions.
Now an Army second lieutenant stationed at Fort Bliss, Tex., “I talk about that trip almost every day,” Baldwin said.
One way it comes up: “When my guys are whining, I’m like, ‘You could be a legless guy in Nicaragua and I’m not sorry for you,’” Baldwin said.
His advice to people considering joining Webb and Albritton’s trip: “Just do it.”
Webb said he’s found that travel to Nicaragua leaves a strong impression on most visitors.
“It’s primarily a connection with the people, a people to people thing,” he said. “When we first went there … they were victims of a cruel war thrust on them through no fault of their own.”
Now, he continued, “I marvel at their self-reliance and the commitment to each other and their town.
“They’re our heroes now.”
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669
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