Friday, August 14, 2009

Her name was Lola...

Aka the story of how I went to inquire about getting a portrait taken and ended up with two tables and a dog.
So here in Nicaragua just about every family who can afford it has at least one “professional” portrait framed on the wall. There’s little portrait studios all over town that will snap your picture and then put your likeness in front of the background of your choosing. It’s definitely not a novel or strange concept, but the backgrounds for these photos range from slightly amusing to pee your pants funny. You walk into a house and BAM! Picture of naked baby surrounded by clowns. Or their teenage son posing in front of a beat-up truck. Grandpa, giving his best deer in headlights pose, with a dilapidated donkey in the forest behind him. Of course these backgrounds are all digitally added after the portrait is taken, and as you can imagine the quality of the subject superimposed on the digital background makes the whole depiction that much more fantastic.
So Nikki, my sitemate who lives in Ocotal also, wanted to get a picture of us made for the new house she just moved into. We walked into one of the photo studios in the center of town to try and barter our way down to a fair price. We live here, so we’re paying the Nica price, not the gringa price, damnit. So we’re haggling and chatting with the owner when I notice a really cool looking little table in the store. Because me and Nikki both had been trying to buy a cheap little nightstand, I ask him where he got it. Before I know it, he’s loading us into his truck with his wife and baby to take us to the man that made the table. We start driving towards one of the further away barrios. We go past it. We keep going. We left any hope of a paved road a long time ago. Finally, we stop in front of a little house in the middle of nowhere. (Before you freak out mom, it’s totally normal and safe for someone you just met to offer to drive you to the middle of nowhere to ask a stranger about a table. One of the many wonderful things about Nicaragua.)
So we walk into the house and out back there’s a little wood shop. Out walks an incredibly old and incredibly sweet old man. He can hardly hear, his family has to help him around a little, but he’s telling us all about his furniture and his woodshop. He’s obviously been doing this since the country was a part of Pangaea and still takes a lot of pride in his work. After meeting the entire family, hearing their life stories, answering questions about America, etc., we are able to haggle our way down to C$150 (or about $7) for each table, the Nica price! I suddenly notice that one of the sweetest, most beautiful dogs I’ve seen in the entire country has entered the room and is staring at me just begging to be petted. This is a small miracle for a number of reasons. First, almost all dogs here are just plain funny looking. They’re a little too short, or a little too long, they all have enormous ears and terrible over/underbites. I like to joke that there’s just one super stud bandito dog with huge ears, long body, and short legs that just runs from town to town knocking up every single dog it sees, and that’s why they’re all so funny looking. Second, dogs here usually aren’t friendly or nice. It’s really sad, but most dogs are beaten from the day they are born and often left tied up outside all day every day to just bark. And bark. And bark some more. They’re more of an alarm system than a living creature. The treatment of animals is just one of the many things you have to numb yourself to a little bit or you’ll never make it out in one piece.
But here was the cutest little blonde cocker spaniel playing with the family, obviously well fed and well treated. I commented on how sweet the dog was to the equally sweet grandmother of the house and she replied, “well, if you like him, we have another of the same breed and she just had puppies.” Ummm, what?
So as a side note, I’ve definitely though about getting a dog while I’m here. Lots of volunteers choose to adopt dogs during their service. They’re great companionship, another level of security, and really easy to take back to the states. It’s also much easier to train a puppy here when you have a much more open schedule than back home when you have to be at work all day. Although I was open to the idea of a puppy, I’ve maintained from the beginning that I wasn’t going to look for one, but if one found me so be it.
I asked the grandmother a few more questions about the puppies, purchase my table, and agree to meet her at the bus station tomorrow morning to go see them. So we meet at the bus station the next morning and start walking away from town across a field. Before I know it we’re trekking down into a huge ravine/valley into a totally hidden and desperately poor barrio. No electricity, no water, dirt floors, impossible for cars to reach, the works. I’m sweating like a pig in a donut shop, out of breath, can hardly keep up, while grandma is chattering away and hauling ass. I still have no idea how she does it. After what feels like an eternity but was actually about 15 minutes, we arrive at a very simple but clean house. And out walks a mama cocker spaniel that is just as sweet and beautiful as the dad. Then, two little puppies come bounding out after her to greet me. I’m hooked. After making sure they’re just as healthy and well-treated as I had hoped, and a few days of thinking it over I returned to the house and was able to haggle my way to the Nica price, and brought home Lola.
Now I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for not adopting a dog, which is something I would definitely do in the states, but let me argue my case. Because veterinary care is not really affordable on a Peace Corps salary / not really existent anyway, you can’t really just take a stray off the street that isn’t vaccinated, deparasited, etc. And because almost all dogs are treated so poorly anyway, any dog is really a rescue dog. Plus, the family I bought her from was one of the nicest, most welcoming, and genuine families I’ve met (and definitely in need of some extra cash), so I feel as though the money went to really deserving people. OK, I’ve absolved my conscience and don’t need to say anymore on that subject.
So now I’ve had Lola in my life for the past couple days. She’s two and a half months old, a light golden cocker spaniel, and the cutest pile of love I’ve ever seen. (Visit to see pictures of her.) She loves being petted, is insanely good-natured and obedient, energetic, loves my host family and all the neighborhood kids (even when they incessantly poke, prod, and pull at her), and has already learned how to fetch, although we’re still working on actually bringing the ball back. She spends most of her time alternating between wriggling around the garden in my host family’s house and lying on her back trying to get her belly rubbed. I could go on for a whole other page, but I’ll spare you the details. She’s a good dog.
And so that’s the story of how I went to have a picture taken and wound up with two tables and a dog. We still haven’t had the portrait made.

Monday, July 13, 2009

6 months down, only 21 to go!

So in about a week I’ll have been in country for 6 months, which is totally crazy to think about. I usually can’t believe that I’ve been here for that long and how fast the time has gone. On the flip side, when I think about how long I’ve already been here, and the fact that I still have almost TWO YEARS LEFT, I about lose my mind. I know everyone says the years will go by in a flash, but it’s hard to imagine that I’m still only beginning.
The big news here (and by here I mean nobody around me is even slightly concerned, but everyone stateside is freaking out) is the presidential kidnapping and military coup in Honduras. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m still alive and well. Nothing like a little bit of political unrest to keep things interesting. I know it seems like a really big deal in the media, but there’s actually not too much to worry about. Although this is the first military coup in the region since 1993, the president was replaced by a member of parliament, the Honduran people are almost overwhelming in support of the coup, and the military has made no attempt to become more involved politically. Of course this is totally illegal, the international community is livid and imposing some pretty severe sanctions until the president is reinstated, ect, Honduras is still relatively stable. And the unrest definitely hasn’t spilled over to Nicaragua, although many people are saying that Honduras just did what Nicaragua should have done with Daniel Ortega ages ago.
The other big news is that the mayor of Managua, the capital, was found dead the other week of a gunshot wound to the chest. The authorities ruled it suicide. Uh huh, sure. Sounds fishy to me, and a lot of other people, but that’s the way things go here.
Life in Ocotal is definitely good, I’m loving my community. It’s big enough so that there’s plenty to do (and by plenty I mean that there’s about three restaurants that I go to) but small enough to be totally manageable. I went down to Granada, one of the big tourist cities, so I wouldn’t be the only one getting drunk and talking about how great America is. Went to a barbeque complete with ribs, potato salad, cole slaw, and sweet tea. After almost 6 months of rice and beans, it was a feast for the ages. Granada is right on Lake Nicaragua, so one of the days we took boat tour of all the islands in the lake near the city. We got to go through a gorgeous nature preserve, gawk at rich people’s houses and, my personal favorite, see spider monkeys. Because we came bearing gifts in the form of avocados, they jumped right on the boat and made themselves right at home. Not a bad way to spend the 4th.
Work is … getting there. My second counterpart is now no longer working at the health center, and because of budget cuts they’re not going to be replacing her. So that’s awesome. I once again find myself without a counterpart. I know that neither of their departures have had anything to do with me, but still, it makes a girl nervous. The big news is a few weeks ago I had my big debut on the local tv station, which awesomely enough happened to coincide with the first time in my service that I completely bombed a charla. Everyone has those charlas that just don’t go as planned, (some completely true examples from people in my group : 1. She had literally everyone at the health center get up and walk out in the middle, even the man with no legs. 2. A woman got up in the middle of it, walked to the front of the room, told the volunteer that nobody could understand her anyway, and proceeded to give the rest of the charla herself. During the woman’s version of the charla she listed coconut milk as a form of birth control. 3. While teaching sex ed to a classroom of students, she asked all the boys and all the girls to draw/write about their perfect partner. Each girl got up and described a different boy in the class. The boys just drew a picture of a vagina. ) and my first disastrous one just happened to be on live television.
Now lemme give you a little background on how this happened. A guy in town who has a program on the local tv network about HIV/AIDS approached me about doing a show with him, which I agreed to. Because my Spanish is still a little iffy at times, and because I tend to freak out when on camera, I had us practice the whole thing from start to finish about a million times. So the big day comes for me to dazzle the audience, and even though I’m super nervous I feel really well prepared. So Carlos, the guy doing the show with me, shows up about 35 minutes late to the station. Which is 5 minutes after the show was supposed to start. Which actually doesn’t matter because we can’t start filming until the rain slows down. (Tin roof = really loud in the rain. Hopefully that’s at least a small indication of the professionalism of the local media.) So we’re about to start, and Carlos comes up to me and says “so this will work a whole lot better if we’re sitting down…” Uh oh, don’t like where this is going. “Yeah, I think it will be better if instead of doing the material we have planned, if we just sit at the table and I ask you questions and you answer them. “ So after trying to explain why I didn’t want to do that for a couple of minutes, I came to the scary realization that I was going to have to go along with it. “Soooo, what type of questions are you going to ask me?” He rattled off a couple questions that essentially were the meat of what we were going to do anyway. So I had him go over the questions with me a couple more times so I could be sure I had responses prepared. Ok, I think I can do this. Cue live tv. It starts off good enough, “what is HIV/AIDS?” “Ok, tell us how it’s transmitted.” Cool, I’m hanging in there. Carlos: “Could you talk more about how it’s transmitted through breast milk?” Dude, not one of the pre-approved questions.
Me:“Ummm, the virus is in the breast milk.”
Carlos: “And how is HIV/AIDS prevented?” Cool, now we’re back on track.
Me: “Through abstinence, fidelity, and condom use.”
Carlos: “And we all know you know about condom use (insert creepy laugh and him rubbing my leg under the table), so could you tell us more about abstinence and fidelity?”
Me: “ummm, don’t have sex, don’t cheat on your partner.”
Carlos: “Mumble mumble bunch of Spanish that I don’t understand.”
Me: Crap, I wonder what would happen if I just got up and walked out right now…“What a great question, I’d love to talk about the HIV test….”
Carlos: “Tell me more about your experience working with children living with HIV.”
Me: Ummmm, seeing as how i don’t have any. “Well, if a pregnant woman is HIV positive and takes antiretroviral drugs, has a cesarean birth, and doesn’t breast feed, she has very little chance of passing the virus to her child. So let me talk more about taking the HIV test…”
Carlos: “Mumble mumble, jovenes, mumble, realizar, mumble mumble.”
Me: “You’re going to have to repeat that question for me.”
Carlos: “Mumble mumble, jovenes, mumble, realizar, mumble mumble.”
Me: Honestly, who lets a mumbler have his own television show? “Once more, slower, and enunciate.”
Carlos: “ Why do you think that young people have such fear to take the HIV test, and what can you say to them?”
Me: Seriously, this is soooo not what we talked about. “Ummm, it’s easy. Just do it.”
Carlos: “Ok, that’s all we have time for tonight, now I’m going to play a video about addiction…”
Yep, all on live television. And in Spanish. Stellar. And the ‘addiction’ video turned out to be a documentary about the last days of Jeffery Dahmer. In English.
In completely unrelated news, I’m also working on putting in a vegetable garden in the Casa Materna, or the pregnant women’s house. The ministry of health doesn’t have to resources to provide anything other than rice and beans for the women there and you can imagine how bad it is to have pregnant women only eating rice and beans for a week to a month before they give birth. I’ve got everything ready to go except the dirt, which is especially frustrating when there’s dirt as far as the eye can see, just not the right type. I thought I was in luck on Thursday when Scarleth, the director of the Casa Materna, called me up and said someone had brought dirt there. “Jessie, this guy I asked about dirt just showed up with it. He’s gonna bring two full truckloads of it. You just need to come up here to pay him.” “Scarleth, you know that Peace Corps doesn’t have money for these things.” “I know, I just thought that since you care so much about the women you could just pay for it. It’s only C$500. I’m sure you have plenty of extra money.” ($500 is about $25. Of course I have tons of extra money lying around. It’s not like I make less than a teacher’s salary here or anything. I could pay for it, but it would just mean that I couldn’t eat for 10 days afterwards.)
It’s definitely a challenge being a gringo but living on a peace corps budget down here. People are so used to seeing rich Americans on tv and in movies, as well as seeing volunteer groups that come down and just essentially give things away, that lots of people can’t really accept that I don’t have piles of cash in my bedroom saved up just for them. Or that I can’t just call up some magic person in the states to give me more if I run out. I was explaining to my host family the other day that I eat soy meat because I can’t really afford real meat (they think the soy meat thing is the most strange/repulsive thing they’ve ever heard of. They make me wash the pans twice after I cook with it. I’ve also been told once that it will give me cancer.) and their uncle just gave me a blank stare and said, “well can’t you just ask for more money?” They still believe that my salary is in dollars, not cordobas, and am just lying about being broke.
So that’s about all this time around, I head off tomorrow morning for a week of language classes, thank god. It’ll be really nice to ask someone a question about Spanish and not get the response of, I don’t know, that’s just how it is. Not that I could explain English any better. Until next time…

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

So much to say

I don’t even know where to start.  I’ve been in my site for about three weeks now and really loving it.  Work is definitely a little slow going, but you know, it should pick up eventually.  As most of you know, I spent semana santa with my host family on Ometepe, and it was the classic nica vacation in that we didn’t…really…do…anything.  Honestly, it was a pretty tough week for me.  We did go to the beach a few times, but all of the volcano climbing, finca visiting, horse riding never really materialized.  We spent most of the time sitting around the house talking, which in Nicaragua is a totally legit activity, but still one I haven’t gotten used to.   Of course my brain chose this exact moment in time to decide not to remember any of the Spanish I had learned in the past three months.  The accent on the island is also one of the hardest ones for me to understand, so I definitely solidified my role as the mute foreigner.  If you can imagine a solid week of nothing really to do except sit around and chat, only to realize that, oh crap, chatting isn’t really a valid option.  On a positive note, I did prove a long-held theory that is, in fact, impossible to die of boredom.  Trust me, I wouldn’t still be with you if it was. 

I’ve come to learn that bad Spanish weeks and frustration and homesickness and annoyance with anything and anyone Nicaraguan and just hard times in general are pretty much unavoidable, so you just have to learn how to deal with it when it happens and do whatever you possibly can to keep yourself sane.  Plus, whenever I’m really having a rough time, something wonderful and amazing seems to happen to pull me back to reality.  In this case it was two wonderful and amazing things happening.  The first was that I received my first package.  (Translation: get off your tails and send me stuff.  Even just a note or old magazine.  Old magazines are worth their weight in gold.)  You have no idea how happy it will make me.  Address is conveniently located on the left-hand panel .)  And it wasn’t just any package; it was the package from the gods sent by my wonderful mom (thanks mom!) full of such goodies as Splenda, Cholula hot sauce, and more clothes.  Everyone was in amazement of my goodies, especially the clothes for one reason:  They all smelled like clean laundry.  When you’ve been hand washing and line drying all your clothes for months, the smell of fresh laundry just melts your heart.  Everyone just sat around smelling my clothes for a good half hour.  I still haven’t worn one of the shirts so that I can still smell it whenever I get homesick.

The   second wonderful and amazing thing that happened was just a little thing called swearing in.  Yep, that’s right, after 3 looooong months of training, I am now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer, aka a big kid.  The ceremony was held in the nicest hotel in the entire country and had all of the peace corps staff, the American ambassador, and all of our host families in attendance.  It was definitely really hard to leave my host family.  I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth mentioning again: I literally could not have asked for a better host family.  From day one they were just the most caring, welcoming, patient, and just straight up fun family I have met since I’ve been here.  They truly are unbelievable people and I feel honored to have been a part of their family.  I still maintain that my host mom makes the best gallopinto in all of Nicaragua.  Even though I detested my gallopinto, queso, tortilla dinner every single night of the week (ok, sometimes I’d get an egg instead of queso) at first, by the end of training I’d have insane cravings for it if I ever missed dinner.  I still get cravings for it.

So anyway, after the speeches, bidding of farewells to the families, picture taking, and taking advantage of what is most likely the last time any of us will be in such decadent surroundings, I walked out the hotel doors into infinite freedom.  Ok, maybe not anything even closely related to infinite freedom, but still, it felt pretty good.  After having my life totally scheduled and micromanaged for three months, I all of a sudden can eat whatever I want(kinda), go wherever I want (kinda), and generally do whatever I want(kinda).  After basking in that glory for approximately 15 minutes, I had the inevitable freak out moment.  Oh shit, what am I going to eat for the next two years?  Where am I going to go for the next two years?  More importantly, what am I going to do for the next two years?  I’m just supposed to catch a bus and move all my stuff up to the side of a mountain somewhere and start… working? Where I don’t know a soul and can barely communicate? Are they freaking joking?

Then I suddenly remembered, oh wait, I’m not actually expected to do anything of any real value at first.  I’ve got a couple months to get to know my community, my coworkers, learn more Spanish, before I need to embark on any large projects.  Ok, cool.  I can totally do this.  So I get to the Centro de Salud my first day all excited to talk to my counterpart and get down to business.  Huh, my counterpart isn’t there, that’s weird.  Ok, stay calm; I can just shadow some of the other educators for the day.  Day number two: same story.  Oookaaaay… About halfway through the day I get a phone call from my peace corps project director.  Here’s how the convo went down:

 Pilar: Hi Jessie, how’s everything going?

Me: Not spectacular, but I’m definitely hanging in there.

Pilar: Ok, good. .. Listen…do you have time to talk?

Me: Yeah, sure, what’s up?

Pilar: Well…You see… Ummmm… Your counterpart (who had worked with like a million PCV’s and apparently is like the best counterpart in the history of PC Nicaragua)… yeah, she resigned from the Centro de Salud and didn’t feel a need to tell Peace Corps… So you kinda don’t have a counterpart anymore.

Me: Really?...  Well that’s… not good. 

Pilar: Ummmm…. Yeah…. Well I’m kind of not done yet…

Me: Ooookaaay…

Pilar: The family you’re living with… (with a private bathroom, private entrance, super nice family that included the governor of the entire department, WASHING MACHINE, etc, etc, etc) yeah… they’re going to Miami for a month and didn’t feel a need to tell Peace Corps either… so yeah… you’ve got about five days to find a new place to live.

Me: Huh.  They didn’t talk about this in training.


So yeah.  That kinda blew.  The one good thing about having to scramble to find a new place to live is it’s a great way to meet people.  I had random strangers coming up to me on the street trying to take me to their sister/mother/cousin’s place to look at rooms.  In a town of 40,000 people that’s a pretty big deal.  Once I got the house situation squared away I started to get into a business as usual routine.  So far work has actually been pretty similar to many of the jobs I’ve held in the past, where I just spend a lot of time trying to look busy.  Everybody says that the first three months in site are the hardest, so I’m just trying to make it over the hump.  It definitely has been tough, especially not really having much to do with work right now, but if this is the toughest part of my service I think I’m good to go.

I really really like Ocotal.  It’s big enough to have plenty of stuff to do (relatively speaking) but not so big that it’s completely overwhelming.  The mountains are absolutely gorgeous, especially now that the rainy season started and everything is changing from brown to green, and the weather can’t be beat.  Still hot, but it cools down and is really nice at night.  It makes me glad I’m not living in Chinandega, the hottest part of the country, where the forecast one day called for a high of 104 and… smoke.  Yep, smoke.  The people in Ocotal couldn’t be nicer, and I’m really starting to like a lot of the people I’m working with.  I feel like I’ve got a lot more to report on, but my mind is drawing a blank right now and my internet time is about to run out.  Sooo… guess that’s it for now. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The end is in sight…

Sorry I haven’t updated in forever, I’ve been crazy busy trying to finish up with training.  So much has happened that I don’t really have the time or energy to go over all of it here, but I’ll do my best to give you the highlights.

HIV/AIDS Week in Chinandega

                Basically only two notable things happened here.

1.       I gave my first charla to a group of men.  This can be especially difficult for women because of the really strong machismo culture here, and it definitely didn’t help that it was an HIV/AIDS charla, complete with condom demonstration.    Fortunately, the group of firefighters I had was extremely professional and respectful, so the charla went off really well.  I definitely felt like they paid attention and were relaxed and comfortable enough to have a pretty open and honest discussion without ever really crossing the line of appropriateness.  If only every group of men would be like this…

2.       We went to the beach.  Awesome.

Site Assignment – AKA the biggest deal ever

                So we were all given a big packet with descriptions of all 20 sites that we will be placed in to look over and rank which ones we wanted.  Then Peace Corps did something downright inhumane: made us wait over three weeks to find out who was going where.  Pure evil.  This was especially torturous for me because I did the one thing they told us not to do: get our hearts set on one site.   So of course I spent the next three weeks obsessing over Ocotal, the site I wanted.  By the time site assignment day got here, I was sweating bullets.  I mean, I would have been fine in just about any site, but I was really nervous I wouldn’t get Ocotal and would be really upset and cry in front of everybody and just embarrass myself.  I had even written an essay for Pilar, our project director, in Spanish and English entitled 8 reasons why Ocotal needs me.  Obnoxious, check.  Effective, check.  I got Ocotal, thank you sweet baby Jesus!

Site Visit                                                                                     

                So the week after site assignments we got to go on our site visits.  I was actually really nervous because I had made such a huge deal about Ocotal, that if I finally got there and didn’t really like it I would feel like a total asshole.  Thankfully, it was everything I wanted and more.  It’s a fairly large site in the northern highlands with just under 40,000 people.  It’s the capital of the department Nueva Segovia, which is famous for gorgeous mountains, coffee growers, and being the site of much of the Sandinista/Contra war battles.  The city is located in a valley about 15 km from the Honduran border.  Like most of Nicaragua, its main economy is agriculture, but because of the close proximity to Honduras and its location right off the Pan-American Highway, it does get more trade coming through than most places in the north.  It is also one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in the Americas, so I can rest assured that there will be no shortage of work for me to do.  Because of its size, Ocotal has lots of ‘luxuries’ that other places don’t, including: two grocery stores, three ice cream shops, a hospital (that I hopefully will never have to do to), two discos (one of which has karaoke, dangerous), swimming pools, one of the prettiest parks in Nicaragua, and a sitemate. My sitemate is a small business volunteer who I think I’m going to get along with really well.  She may turn out to be largely responsible for the partial preservation of what little of my sanity still remains.

                Brian, the volunteer that I’m replacing in Ocotal, was still in the city for a few days, along with Nikki and two other small business volunteers from her group, so I got a really good introduction to Ocotal.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the visit was a little more play than work.  I did get to meet my counterpart, Marbely, who is fantastic.  She’s an educator for the health center and one of the people I’ll be working most closely with.  I got good introductions to the health center, SILAIS, which is like the health department and only located in departmental capitals, the hospital, and a couple of the smaller health posts in the outlying communities.  I also went to a training session organized by one of the local NGOs that had in attendance two teenage mothers, one with her newborn baby, the other about to pop, and one transvestite.  Jackpot. I felt right at home.  Also, because the volunteer I’m replacing and Nikki my sitemate both had really really low language levels when they first came in, I got about a million complements about how good my Spanish was.  This is not something that happens very often for me.  I also discovered that the hot dog/ramen noodle stand in the park stays open until after the bars/discos close. I’ll throw out my second thank you sweet baby jesus for that one.

                Right now I’m totally pumped because while the rest of my group has another week of language classes and charlas left before swearing-in (which we are all totally over by this point in training), I get to take off tomorrow morning for a full week on Ometepe with my host family.  I’m thrilled to be missing classes, but even more thrilled to get to spend so much time such a beautiful place with my host family.  They’ve been absolutely wonderful to me over the past three months and I’m going to be so sad to have to leave them behind.  I really couldn’t have asked for a better family and I’m eternally grateful for all that they’ve done for me. 

                Now that training is essentially over for me, I’m kinda just a bundle of emotion.  I’m completely thrilled to be done with training and getting back a little bit of freedom and independence in my life.  I’m also really ready to begin work, but totally overwhelmed and nervous at the same time.  The volunteer I’m replacing didn’t really have any ongoing projects for me to start on, so I just basically have to create my own.  It’s a little stressful because it is a bigger site that a lot of other volunteers wanted, so the pressure’s really on for me to do enough to help the people in my community.  Leaving my family and the other volunteers is going to be really difficult because we’ve all gotten so close during the last couple months.  I guess mixed emotions is a good thing in this circumstance, so I’m just going to try to enjoy the last week of training as much as I can.

By the way, we have a new frontrunner for the ironic t-shirt contest: a really old woman spotted at the market wearing a “Spring Break 2009 Girls Gone Wild” shirt.  Priceless. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Are we there yet?

I just finished up my sixth week of training, which means I’ve only got five weeks left until swearing-in and the beginning of my service!  My volunteer visit last week was a much needed break from the grind of training.  Me and Hana, another girl in my training group, were both staying with Matt and Jess, so we made the trip up there together.  It was fairly uneventful save for one unusual situation on the bus.  A man sat down in the seat next to me and would not stop staring.  This is a really common occurrence for me and something that I normally tolerate really well, but this dude was way in my in my business.  (I generally can’t walk ten feet without having someone catcalling me.  They’ll yell at me from halfway around the block, make kissing noises, hiss at me, and yell every single English phrase they know, which is my personal favorite because they usually have no idea what they are saying.  Last night I got “hello, good morning, fine, super duper.” If that doesn’t make me want to drop everything and runaway with unidentified vago on the street I don’t know what will.)  At first he was just leaning halfway across the aisle staring, which I can pretty easily ignore.  Then he started telling me the three English phrases he knows, which I won’t repeat here.  Normally when someone does this I’ll answer them in English, and when they can’t understand switch to Spanish and make them feel like a jackass for not being able to speak English.  This is generally really effective, especially if the guy is in front of his friends cause they’ll start harassing him more than I was.  Yeah, that didn’t work here.  I asked him to stop, still didn’t work.  Finally, he made the fatal error and grabbed my arm.  Dude, not a smart move.  I was about to open up a can of whoopass on this asshole when I thought of a better plan.  I got the entire back half of the bus to stare so intently at this guy that he actually had to get up and stand in the front of the bus he felt so uncomfortable.  Oh sweet victory. 

After we arrived in Somoto we spent the afternoon hiking at a really cool canyon in the area.  The ‘we’ I refer to was actually the largest parade of gringos I think the town has ever seen.  There was me, Hana, Matt, and Jess, as well as Nico from my training group and Leigh-Anne, the volunteer he was visiting, another Peace Corps small business volunteer, two backpackers, and two other girls writing for a travel book.  It was nothing short of an entourage.  We hiked for about 20 minutes until we got to the river and then had to boulder our way into the rest of the canyon.  It was absolutely pristine and beautiful.  On our way out I noticed ropes being thrown down the side of the canyon wall next to a Nicaraguan flag stuck in the middle of the cliff.  Apparently, there’s a family that lives above the canyon, and they have to repel down to the river to bathe, wash clothes, and collect water.  Sure enough, a couple of guys started descending down the ropes into the river. I still maintain that you have to be criminally insane to live like that, but I guess I’ve heard of stranger family traditions.   

Monday and Tuesday we shadowed Matt and Jess at work.  Because I was with a married couple, I got to pick and choose what I wanted to do, so I got to see a lot of different working environments.  I got to see the Centro de Salud, or the health center that most communities have, and SILAIS, which is more like the health department and is only in the department capitals.  I also got to visit a Casa Materna with Jess and Leigh-Anne, the other health volunteer living in the area.  Casa Maternas are for pregnant women and are located all over Nicaragua, usually close to a Centro de Salud or hospital.  Because Nicaragua is so rural, it’s not uncommon for a pregnant woman to have to walk 5, 10, 15 hours for an institutionalized birth.  As a result, home births assisted by a partera (a midwife, usually with no training, formal or informal) are really common, which leads to the very high maternal and child morbidity rates in the country.  Casa Maternas give pregnant women a free place to stay for 2-4 weeks before giving birth, so they can avoid home births or walking large distances while in labor.  I also helped give a charla to a youth group in a rural community.  Tuesday afternoon I went out with a group from the University College of Dublin that does work every year in Nicaragua.  We checked out a small health center they had helped build the previous year and talked to some members of the community that the health center served.  I also got to see the finished product of a stove project that another PCV had done in the homes.  It was just a better engineered stove that heated things much faster, burned less wood, and had a chimney to keep the entire house from filling up with smoke.  The cool thing about it was that it was a fairly simple and inexpensive project, yet something that the families used every day and seemed very pleased with the results. We also went to another part of Somoto to begin the scoping process for their project this summer.

The site visit was good because I got to see a good majority of the types of projects that volunteers usually work with.  It was also nice just to have a reminder that training is only a short portion of my service and in a few short weeks I’ll be living independently and actually doing the type of work that I came here to do.  As sad as it is, probably the best part of the site visit was getting to eat semi-american food.  After six weeks of eating whatever my host family serves me that day (my favorite hysterical meal so far is the lunch I get every once and a while consisting of rice, pasta, bread, and plantains.  No joke.) I cannot describe how absolutely glorious that tuna salad sandwich on WHEAT BREAD was.  I almost cried it was so good.

I returned to training with mixed emotions.  I definitely had missed my host family and it was nice to get back to them.  Part of me was super fired up to bust my ass working through the last half of training, but the other part of me felt absolutely tortured to be sitting back in classes after I had seen how good it is on the other side.  I know that training is really important and I honestly wouldn’t change anything about it even if I could, but that doesn’t make it any easier while I’m in the middle of it. At least I’ve been told that the second half of training flies by. 

After returning from our volunteer site visits we got the packet of all the available sites that we will be placed in, and Saturday we got to put down our site preferences.  We find out our sites on March 16th, and I cannot wait.  They tell you not to get too attached to any site or sites because there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get any of your choices, but I did the typical thing and completely threw that good advice straight out the window.   I have my heart absolutely set on one site.  I was already leaning towards this site before I saw the project descriptions because it’s a larger site in the mountains, but once I saw the projects I would be working on I was hooked.  Seriously, it screams industrial engineer.  I honestly feel fairly confident that I’ll get the site, especially because I can make a better case for it than anyone else, but I’m still terrified that I won’t get it and will have to cry and make a huge scene in front of everyone.  I know that I’ll be fine just about anywhere, but I’m totally keeping my fingers crossed that I get what I want.

On Wednesday I gave my first solo charla in the school.  Imagine having to give an hour-long lesson to a classroom of 50 students ranging in age from 9 to 12.  Ok, now picture doing it in Spanish.  Ummm, yeah, it was definitely a back-up pair of underwear type of day for me.  Thankfully, the stars were aligned that day and I killed it.  I lucked out and got what was probably the best behaved classroom in all of Nicaragua, but I had also put a lot of work into my charla and walked in very well prepared.  The kids enjoyed the lesson and activities, and I definitely felt fairly confident and at ease with my Spanish.  It was nice to have my hard work pay off, but it was even nicer to feel like I was actually doing something.  I don’t believe for a hot second that my water charla is actually going to make any sort of a difference in anyone’s life, but just getting to do something that didn’t involve me sitting in Spanish class or in my technical trainings was a very refreshing change of pace. 

I’m definitely in the home stretch for training, thank god.  Next week is HIV/AIDS week, so we get to stay in Managua and Chinandega for the week.  The following week we find out our site assignments, and then the next week we get to visit our future sites.  Then we’ve got another week of class, and then the last week I get to spend with my host family at the island. (There’s a family farm on the island in the middle of the largest freshwater lake in the Americas.  The island has two volcanoes on it.  If that’s not enough, there’s also apparently another lake inside one of the volcanoes.  Sweet.)  After that we get sworn in as volunteers and then the real adventure begins.  Until next time…

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I almost forgot, I am now the proud owner of a brand new Nica cell phone.  Incoming calls are free for me, so please drop me a line if you feel like it.  You can get calling cards pretty cheap, or download skype and call through the internet.  Caller ID doesn’t work for international calls, so if I miss your call I can’t call you back.  Just try again a little later and I’ll probably pick up.  The number is: 011-505-655-7396.

30 Days in the Hole

I just hit the one month mark for training, and not a day too soon.  I’ve been hanging in there, but training has honestly been tough for me.  A lot of people have trouble with cultural adjustment, homesickness, the language barrier, etc; for me the real challenge has been a serious lack of independence and freedom.  Let me preface this by saying that if I could change anything about the training process I honestly wouldn’t.  I’ve been nothing but completely blown away by the training I’m receiving (especially the language instruction) as well as my host family and the Nicaraguan people in general.  That being said, I’m so ready for it to be over.  Between language and technical training, the peace corps basically controls a large portion of my time.  Aside from that, when I do have free time I can’t really go anywhere by myself, it’s not safe for us to be out after dark, and I always have to tell my host family where I am going.  For somewhere who is used to basically doing whatever I want whenever I want, this has been a seriously tough adjustment.  Just having to face the reality that I’m not able to take care of myself quite yet is a pretty bitter pill to swallow for me.  It’s especially frustrating because we’re not really doing anything project-wise yet.  We have charlas given by other volunteers twice a week about their projects and how to run effective projects once we begin our service.  I feel like I’m chomping at the bit to get started at my site, but instead I’m stuck sitting in class everyday.  Sometimes I feel more like I’m at summer camp than actually trying to live and work in another country.  I know that this is all temporary and it’s totally normal for trainees to totally hate training, but it doesn’t make it any easier while I’m in the middle of it.  I’m just trying to plow through it for another two months so I can start my service and reclaim ownership of my life.

                Now that I’ve seriously conned everyone into thinking that I’m sitting in the middle of nowhere totally hating my life, I’m going to stop being a Debbie Downer and tell ya’ll what I’ve been up to.  My life is honestly pretty normal here.  I’m in language class with the other three trainees in my town (whom I love!) from 8 until 3 every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and from 8 until 12 every Wednesday.  At times I get super freaked out that my language it never going to progress to the level where I can easily communicate, but honestly in the last month I’ve learned more Spanish than I think I did in four years in high school.  Wednesday afternoon and Fridays we travel by microbus to a different city in the area to receive our technical instruction and charlas.  The microbuses consist of really ghetto vans that are usually crammed with people (the other day we got 24 people in one.  No joke.)that for the low low rate of 5 Cordobas (or about 25 cents) will drive you to the other cities in the area.  The charlas on Wednesday and Friday are with the whole group, so it’s also a really good time for all 20 of us to get together and catch up.  (If anyone’s paying really close attention you’ll notice that we’ve already had one early termination, or ET.  Tim, who was becoming one of my favorites, ET’d after the first week. Moment of silence for my fallen comrade.)  Fridays after class we’ll usually go out dinner and some delicious Flor de Caña, which is some of the best  rum I’ve ever tasted, and dirt cheap cause it’s made right here in beautiful Nicaragua. The rest of the afternoons I normally read a lot, chill with the fam, go for walks around the town, and of course catch the latest happenings in my telenovelas, which I am rapidly becoming addicted to. 

I also spend about two afternoons a week with my absolutely kickass grupo de jovenes (youth group).  Our main project here, which is more like a project with training wheels, is to form a groupo de jovenes with the other trainees in my training town and then do a project for the community with them.  We also play games and give charlas to the jovenes and just basically hang out.  We’ve got about nine girls in our groupo, ranging in age from 11 to 17.  They’ve decided to do a community newspaper for their project, which we are all totally stoked about.  Last week we went around to local business trying to sell ad space for the newspaper.  We took them to the local ciber (internet café) and helped them type up a professional letter explaining the project.  We even got the local mayor’s office to give their stamp of approval for it.  Literally.  The mayor read it over, didn’t say a word, signed his name, and then pulled out an ENORMOUS rubber stamp and stamped it.  Even the jovenes thought it was really strange and hilarious.  All we wanted from him was money.  I was really freaked out that we would have trouble raising the 100 Cords, give or take, that we need to print the finished project, but our jovenes came through big-time and raised 400 Cordobas in about two hours.  That’s officially more money than I make in an entire week.  We also have to give heath-related charlas to the groupo de jovenes, in addition to giving charlas in the school and Centro de Salud (health center).  Since we really wanted the jovenes to dictate the content of the charlas, we did an activity with them to help them pick out what topics they wanted the charlas to cover.  After much discussion, our jovenes voted by an overwhelming majority that they wanted the first charla to be about…….. abortion.  Sweet.  Now I get to figure out how to teach a bunch of 14-year-olds about abortion… in Spanish.  Awesome.  They also really wanted to write an article for the community newspaper about abortion, but we had to veto that idea. 

(A side note on the abortion issue:  Nicaragua has received a lot of flack lately because of recent legislation passed banning all forms of abortion, even in cases of incest and rape or when the mother’s life is in danger.  Most of the countries in the area have very strict abortion policies, and the majority of the populations generally support it.  Regardless of my own personal beliefs about the issue, this is perhaps why the groupo de jovenes is so interested and curious about it.  It’s generally not discussed, especially not in a responsible and educational environment, which leads to a lot of myths and confusion.  The problem of illegal abortion is also a huge issue.  Nicaraguan attitudes about sex in general are very different than in the states, which is why sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancy, and STD prevention will compromise a large portion of my work as a health volunteer.  Nicaragua has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the entire western hemisphere, with 40% of the nation’s babies being born to women under the age of 20.)

 Even though I have a daily routine that seems totally normal, every once in a while I’ll get smacked in the face with something so totally ridiculous that I’ll be instantly reminded of how what seems normal now would have been completely strange a month ago.  Perhaps my favorite example was when I was woken up at 4:30am by a brass band having a full-on parade through the street outside of my window.  I was pissed.  After I woke up a little bit more I collapsed into laughter at the sheer incredulity of the fact that that seemed almost as normal as my normal alarm clock (which here consists of a family of roosters that live next door).  The fact that it seems totally normal to wake up by rooster every day is kind of a strange thing in itself.  Another one of my favorites are the inappropriate t-shirts that are worn everywhere.  Some notable favorites include: I heart Eskimos, #1 daughter (worn by my friend’s little brother), Women’s Empowerment Retreat 2006: Helping You Find the Light Within (worn by an old man), Proud to be an American (worn in true American style by a man about 70 pounds overweight), and my personal favorite, Everyone Loves a Drunk Girl (spotted on a 14-year-old girl on the microbus).  Sometimes I’m tempted to clue people in to what their shirts say, but so far I’ve been content just to admire from afar. 

Another thing that seems totally normal that probably shouldn’t: I have parasites.  After having diarrhea about ten times a day for almost a week straight I kinda figured something was up.  Rest assured, I’ve seen a doctor and the parasite problem is getting taken care of.  In 5-7 days I should be completely cured of the critters.  And here I was thinking it was just the gallopinto I’ve been eating every single day.  Gallopinto is the national food that’s normally eaten with breakfast and dinner and consists of rice with beans, not to be confused with arroz y frijoles, which is rice and beans and normally eaten with lunch.  Don’t ever try to claim that gallopinto and arroz y frijoles are at all similar, because you will be instantly reminded that they are two very different foods.  I personally am a member of team gallopinto.  Based on the fact that I normally eat rice and beans at least twice a day, you’ve probably realized that the food is nothing to write home about.  So I won’t.

That’s really all that’s been going on with me right now.  The big excitement happens tomorrow, when I leave for my volunteer visit.  We’ve all been paired up with a different health volunteer, and we get to travel to their site and spend four days living with them and shadowing them at work to get a better idea of what our service will be like.  Thank god.  Hopefully the break from training will help me begin to regain the sanity that has slowly eroded away during training.  I’ll be going up to the north of the country in the mountains to one of the department capitals.  (There are 17 departments in the country and the department capital is usually a pretty big city.)  I’m staying with a married couple whom I’ve already met and love, so I’m really looking forward to this visit.  Because they’re a couple, another trainee from my group is coming with me, which means I get a travel buddy.  It should be pretty easy to get to their house because they’re in a department capital, as opposed to some trainees who have to take boats, rickshaws, and/or mules to reach their volunteers.  Finding anything in Nicaragua is a little bit of a challenge as real addresses don’t exist.  Instead, they base the addresses on proximity to a local landmark.  For instance: from the catholic church, three blocks south next to the pink house.  Sometimes these are actual landmarks, but often times addresses can sound a little more like this: two blocks towards the lake from where that really big accident with the bus happened in the 1990’s.  This is not a joke.  My volunteers’ sounds something like this: one and a half blocks north of the house of Pablo, who is dead.  The house with the two gringos with a big black dog.  And I have no idea how this system works, but it does.

Sorry this post is so long, I’ve been trying to limit my trips to the ciber, so I had a lot of info to pack into this.  Hope everyone is surviving the recession, I can say with confidence that I definitely picked the right time to flee the country.  Wish me luck on my travels this week!