By Rob Thorburn
Many parts of Central America are like a paradise on earth and Nicaragua is certainly no exception. From lazy hammock sunsets over the Pacific ocean and jungle treks to gently smoking volcano craters or beautiful rivers punctuated by waterfalls and gorges all the way to sipping piña coladas on the boulevard while being serenaded by mariachis or tasting hand-made organic chocolate made by the person standing right in front of you. Between the members of PWB Nica we’ve managed all of the above and more on top of 9 days of boot camp, 60 days of teaching and 30 shows in less than three months. We’ve seen the country from the far north to the far south, and from the Pacific west coast to the Caribbean islands off the east. We didn’t quite make it into the rainforest, but we have spent time in the 3 biggest cities, many smaller towns and villages, with a few trips into the middle of nowhere for good measure. Of course it’s not all paradise, and we’ve seen some of the darker side of life too – it’s one of the things that is unmissable on a PWB tour as it brings you in close contact with those who are pushed to the edges of society, even in a land that is fertile, beautiful, friendly and open. There’s a incredibly high poverty rate and many children live on the streets, either earning money through begging, crime or prostitution or escaping the realities of life in a bottle of glue. Even for those with homes, a lot of them have very little to look forward to in life beyond menial jobs, crowded living quarters and poor sanitation. It’s heartbreakingly sad, and all we can hope is that we bring a little seed of joy into the lives of those we work with.
From our perspective the tour has exceeded expectations across the board – in each place the children and young people astounded us with their appetite for learning new skills and with their friendly attitude and openness towards a group of somewhat eccentric performers who descended on them with a very British sense of punctuality and structure. Fortunately there were two quick realisations on our part which made everything run smoothly. Firstly, we adjusted our Britishness to a more Latino outlook – as flexible and open as possible, and letting the tour happen to us rather than pushing to make it work exactly the way we had planned. Secondly, as we spent more time in each place we came to realise that eccentricity is not just for circus performers; the organisations we were working with were headed by individuals who are incredibly passionate, fun, intelligent, driven, absolutely in love with music, theatre and circus, and just a little bit crazy to top it off – exactly what we were looking for!
Our mission was slightly different in the three places we focused upon. In Granada at La Escuela de Comedia y el Mimo we were working with children and young people who already have a knowledge of circus, and we were looking to give them new skills, as well as helping the school with some new ideas for how they can work as an organisation. Although we wish we’d had more time with them, it was still a great success – the young people in the core and learning groups showed a progression that was astonishing in the short time we had with them, and the organising team were very open to ideas of how to develop their festival and their funding strategy. We wish them the very best of luck for both in the future, and can’t wait to come for another edition of El Berrinche Ambiental.
El Barrilete in Léon was an entirely different prospect – it’s a youth project working with around 120 children from 3-18, with one lonely unicyclist among their number. Although they have some cultural activities, their main focus is as a homework and vocational skills centre; taking kids off the streets and away from child-labour situations. They took to circus incredibly quickly, and by the time we left were already incorporating it into their regular performance group – they now have stiltwalkers, acrobats, hula-hoopers and jugglers to present alongside their beautiful traditional dances, comedy sketches and giant puppets!
In San Marcos, it seemed as if all of the things that could go well for a PWB project turned up at the same time in the same place – including hugely enthusiastic partners from Asociacion Los Quinchos as well as focused and dedicated kids, eager to soak up as much as we could give them in the time we had. The climate there was a little friendlier too, and we all revelled in the semi-rural beauty of the Barrio we lived in – after a month of Léon’s hot and bustling streets, a 2km walk to a 14 acre finca where you can pluck ripe mangos from the trees certainly puts you in a good mood to teach! Once again, the speed at which the young people learned was incredible, and the skill on display during the final show was mind-blowing after just 3 short weeks. In the time since we left, we’ve been really happy to hear that they are regularly having circus practise, and have plans to put on several shows with their new-found talents.
A PWB project isn’t just about the work we do with our main partners – on this tour we performed in many schools and projects in and around the areas we visited, and made hundreds of connections all over the country and across Central and South America. One of our big goals was to find out more about the national social circus scene, and to try to help it to develop and connect up in whatever way we could. This aim is more long-term than the instant fun we can offer through shows and workshops, but it’s also one of the best ways we can share the PWB vision and get as many kids from every walk of life involved in something we love. We’ve made some great steps both on- and off-project, connecting up various different organisations, donating and fixing equipment in project locations as well as to a few other groups, and generally making as much noise as we can about how great circus, theatre and music can be for kids. In total we taught around 200 children and performed for closer to 4,500 – a good target to aim to beat for future PWB tours!
We’ve made a lot of friends in the last 3 months, and to tell the truth it’s proving very hard to leave this wonderful country. It’s just the beginning of what we hope to be a long and fruitful adventure for Performers Without Borders in Nicaragua, but it feels like the end of an era – already most of the team is back in the UK, and I have just one last visit to make to all of the projects before leaving the country. As Tour Co-ordinator, I’d like to say a final huge thank you to all our supporters far and near, to all the members of the team, to the PWB founders for beginning the whole thing, to all the organisations we’ve worked with over the past three months, and most of all to the children and young people we’ve met and shared with – you make it all worthwhile.
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