Volunteer Journal: Mary Engle

This is from a hand-written diary of my first two-week trip to Nicaragua with TecNica.

—by Mary Engle


Left SFO with equipment and supplies totaling 700 lbs. overweight (for which we had to pay Mexicana Airlines $280),  eight volunteers and personal luggage.  Rewrapped and repackaged many boxes at the airport to reduce the box count and expedite handling.  Flight had a stopover in Guadalajara to let passengers off. The remaining passengers (including us) had to deplane, go through customs and return to our seats on the plane to continue on to Mexico City. Arrived in Mexico City around 6:00 AM with about a 7 1/2 hour layover for the Aeronica flight at 1:30 PM.


Nearly missed our Aeronica flight when they rescheduled it to another gate (other than the one they told us) without announcing it. Aeronica accepted our boxes and bags with no overweight charge (as donations to Nicaraguan people).

On to Nicaragua.  Arrived approximately 4:30 pm, warm and sunny day. Met at the airport by Sandra Mejia and Hillary ___, who negotiated clearing our baggage expeditiously through customs.  It was dark by the time we drove into town to stay at the ASTC Hotelito.  Very clean and nice accommodations with a pool and comfortable communal areas.  I had the only single room as the only woman in the delegation.  After dinner, Tony, the waiter who served us, told us of his experiences and impressions of being called to serve in the militia.  He was home on a two-week leave, then would return to serve his mandatory 3 months duty.  He was a guard/foot soldier from the sound of it (in Spanish) in the hills. His single Contra encounter was quite vivid in his mind, and he relayed it to us in a quiet, serious manner.  Though we had been up for well over 24 hours with only a catnap in flight, we were focused on his words and filled with questions for him to answer.

He treated them with respect and, aided by Hillary as translator (who really did an excellent job), responded to each with a new story.  His politics were revolutionary and his grasp of the revolutionary process was extraordinary for a 19-year-old. I felt that he knew what he was talking about since he explained his feelings articulately and without canned rhetoric.

The contradictions of the Somoza society (and bourgeois society in general) were clear to him, with concrete examples from everyday life.  He was a handsome young man, quite sober in his account with a seriousness and dedication that one would be a fool to challenge. Nicaraguans have been forced to grow up at a very early age.

After some discussion, about seven of us (the group had reached 11 when Jamie, Michael, and Victor met us in the Mexico City airport) walked to a fiesta a few blocks away.  The street faire in a corner park was jammed with people, lit with colored strobe lights, resounding with American disco music. We danced to Michael Jackson blaring, drank beer from plastic bags, and shouted to each other and the Nicaraguans to be heard above the music.

About midnight, Peter L. and I returned to the Hotelito for a swim.  Beautiful balmy breezes wafted through the palms that lined the pool. The Hotelito is located in a “very rich neighborhood”, which by American standards would translate to a Livermore-like middle class suburb.


Up early at 8:00 AM for another swim with Peter. Very refreshing and possible the last exercise I’ll have for awhile.  Had a simple breakfast of eggs, rice and beans, and coffee. Very good Nicaraguan coffee.

Sr. Mary Hartman, member of the Human Rights Commission here, joined us for the meal, then spoke to us of her experiences and impressions of Nicaragua. Most moving, revealing and interesting of discussions.  She is extremely articulate, expressive, and impassioned to witness and participate in the events here.  This was her comment about the Catholic Church’s early role in Nicaragua:  “I came here to evangelize them and was evangelized!”  She’s been here for 23 years, working in barrios, missions, and schools. She is now working in the prison system and serves on the Human Rights Commission.

I was most impressed with her candid responses to questions about the Church administration’s role in Nicaragua. Basically, they represent the Papal hierarchy, opposed to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas (as atheists) and to emerging revolutionary theology.  The Pope ordered the two priests in the Sandinista cabinet (junta) and any other clerics serving in government posts to leave their lay ministries.  Mary deplores this action, and supports the priests’ decisions to remain part of the government.  Apparently the religious involved in revolutionary theology come head to head regularly with Nicaraguan bishops, who take quite fascists attitudes in ignoring the needs and pleas of the poor.

Mary dwelt for some time on the Sandinista attitudes toward the old Somoza death squad leaders and members.  She has been most impressed by the humanistic treatment of prisoners, outlawing the death penalty and rehabilitation programs.  Apparently, the Sandinistas prefer teaching prisoners skills to re-integrate them into society to boarding them for the remainder of their lives.

I was most impressed with this woman, her sensitivity and perspective.  She spoke with us for over 3 ½ hours.

We had a very brief bus tour of Managua with ASTC people, the Cultural group greeting visiting foreigners.  Visited the Cathedral Square, National Palace, and drove by a few other landmarks.  The active volcano fumed and smoked in the background.

A 2:00 PM reception brought representatives of various organizations where we would work to the Hotelito. I spoke at length with Amilcar Turcios about the nature of INIES and their current needs. Art translated.  Peter L. joined us. We set up a demo for 2:oo PM Tuesday and work on Thursday and Friday at INIES all day.  He was very pleasant yet serious about the work.  The Nicaraguans greeted us with gratitude for our being there.

Sunday evening we packed our bags to move on to the Hospedaje de San Juan, 560 Calle Esperanza, where we will stay for the remainder of the two weeks here.  Quite a small, cramped and a bit depressingly poor place, compared to the Hotelito.

My bed is shaky and badly bowed, so it doesn’t offer much rest.  My room has occasional cucarachas (cockroaches) the size of my smallest finger or thumb.  Awful! The proprietors are very nice, though not outgoing or overly friendly.

I am disappointed to find no closet or dresser for my clothes.  Only a rack where they will all be exposed to the dust from the field next door through windows which never close.

Dinner was rice, beans, and meat. For a change of scenery, we ventured to the Hotel Cabañas around the corner for beers and more American disco music.  The proprietor was slow and deliberate about serving us and everyone else there. Nicaraguan beer is tasty!


Monday.  Peter and I waited for a call from Judy Butler of CIDCA (Center for Documentation on the Atlantic Coast) to arrange a meeting.  She finally reached us about 10:00 AM or so, 9:30 perhaps, and scheduled a meeting for 3:00 PM.  At that stroke of liberty, the two Peters and I took a walk over to the nearby University of Central America (UCA).  Peter got us to the computer center, which was comprised of one ancient IBM System 32.  After meeting a University bureaucrat to speak of Peter’s project, I left them to look for points and people of interest and promising photo images. Deciding to return to the library, I introduced myself to the head librarian, Bertholina ____, who spoke rapidly and fairly unintelligibly.  I described TecNica and offered my services, at which point she became much more interested and responsive.  With a flurry of gesturing, she gave me a nice tour of the 27,000+ volume library and staff technical processing areas.  They even reserve a special section for  book binding, particularly for serial collections. They final products look quite respectable, generally with black binding covers with gold imprint lettering on the spine.

In general, the library appeared quite poor and limited in facilities. The serials are housed separately (across the way from monographs, the next building over) and had the same general appearance, not fancy but very neat, as the main library and reference room.

We continued on to the library school, where I met Jacques ____, the head of the library school. He is a middle-aged Swiss man with a little bit of English (doubtless more than he let on). For some reason, he also avoided French. I presume he was Sweitz-Deutsch, though coming from Lausanne. We discussed the need for even the most basic library tools, such as Ulrich’s List of Periodicals, microfiche, old, outdated issues normally thrown out by US libraries.  He was particularly interested in getting the NUC in microfiche — ’81 or ’82 versions.

I asked him to make a list of any materials that he would like to get. I will call for the list before I leave.

Met with Judy Butler of CIDCA today at 3:00 PM.  According to her, they are not terribly well-organized, but do have XT computers, so I will do the demo there.  Judy is a North American who’s quite happy with her job there.  CIDCA has two offices in a modern shopping center, both of which are crowded with people and heavy furniture.  Under such cramped conditions with no open windows (mild air-conditioning), people smoke incessantly with no regard for anyone else’s needs.  Even Judy.  I can only offer a start-up analysis.

I have been asked why I volunteered to come to Nicaragua. I visited Nicaragua 10 years ago under the Somoza regime and witnessed incredible poverty and extreme polarization of the society. The center of Managua was rubble a full three years after the earthquake, in spite of the fact that millions of $$ in aid poured in from Europe and North America to rebuild the City.  To me, life appeared very difficult in Nicaragua.

I found it very difficult to believe that a popular revolution for the poor had worsened conditions and civil liberties as I was told by the Reagan Administration every day.  Here, I am providing technical assistance and encouraging friendly relations—things that my government should be doing.

Monday PM.

Had a stark dinner of more rice and beans and meat. This diet is deficient in greens and vegetables, which I miss horribly.  However, it taste alright, and is sufficient to fill me up, so I will not complain.

TecNica people gathered for a meeting to assess our first day of work and report it to each other. We discussed successes and problems, compared notes and offered suggestions to each other.  Michael Urmann is an excellent organizer and leader, seeing to the smallest details to make everyones’ projects flow smoothly.  His fairness, concern, and patience seem endless.  Impressive.

3/19  Tuesday

Had another stark breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and tortillas, a small piece of fruit, and coffee. Tried to reach Judy on the phone for approximately an hour; finally gave up when I couldn’t get through.  Left a message earlier but no call back (Monday).

Walked over to CIDCA with Peter L.  Worked on installing the SciMate program and customizing it for the CIDCA PC.  Ondina and two Sumo Indians, one of whom was a member of the National Assembly, walked to a neighborhood comedor with Peter Wood and I.  The food was OK and ample, with a drink that ranked among the grossest-looking drinks that I have witnessed anywhere.  Called Caocao, it was quite watery with grey particles floating on it that had a chocolate flavor. Once down to an inch or so of the liquid, only a thick, muddy material remained.  Very strange.

The Demo went well.  Five ministeries showed up with about 8 people.  The Nicaraguans and Judy smoked incessantly despite overcrowded conditions and no air flow.  They asked many questions and showed interest. A Spanish man did a marvelous translation when Judy found it difficult.

I felt fantastic walking home on the streets with the late afternoon sun softened by a balmy breeze.  I was also enjoying being on my own at least after many days of living with nine or ten men.

I am enjoying the group IMMENSELY.  Wonderful, sensitive people with serious intentions, a dedicated nature and terrific senses of humor. Everyone is getting along extremely well, sharing work, play, and skills. Over level of cooperation and caring is only matched by the Sandinista spirit among the people here.  Such a dynamic society in ways I have never before experienced.

<Many more pages to add; slow but steady to completely enter the entire trip.>

—Mary Engle