... these are the thoughts and updates on my life as I begin my 27 month service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua in the health sector, "Estilo de la vida saluable.." This is for my family, closest friends, anyone interested in the Peace Corps, or anyone interested in Nicaragua really. Enjoy!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Goobye Nicaragua. Hello Costa Rica and Panama!

What better time to travel than now? After completing Peace Corps service, Peace Corps rewards its volunteers with a "readjustment allowance," to help them with the transition into life after PC, which is a little money that can go toward an apartment not made of mud, clothing that is rat-bite free, or for a bit of traveling before returning. On top of this,  I am used to developing-country standards regarding transport, housing, and convenience (amongst other things)  and therefore am apt to handle any travel conditions. (Is air-mail the quickest and cheapest way to get to Peru? I'm in! I'll pop out of that box refreshed and ready to go.) Also, I can speak spanish and have been living in a Latin American country for two years From my experience so far, language is one of the most important factors for being accepted into a culture, and basic communication is essential for not getting stuck in tourist traps with other gringos the whole time. Natives seem to appreciate when a foreigner makes an effort to learn the language of the country they are visiting, and it can make a huge difference in one's visit. With those factors in mind, I decided to buy a plane ticket returning stateside from Peru on July 19. Let the little adventures abroad continue! 

-Being a tourist in Nicaragua for the first time: 
It was liberating being freed of work, with nothing but exploration on my horizon. I took Frances on her final death bus ride from Managua to the southern department of San Jorge, the port city, and took a ferry to the famous Ometepe. It's incredible how Nicaragua's finest tourist attractions and still so raw. It is a beautiful yet extremely underdeveloped country, which can be off-putting. Only the most hardcore tourists deserve to enjoy the beauty of this country, and must be prepared to take cold showers, sleep in hot rooms without air-conditioning, or take a ride in a taxi that would pass car safety standards (but 99% of the time, it's fine!). To enjoy Nicaragua, one has to be prepared to break the rules, because we just kind of make them up as we go. With that being said, Frances and I were able to rent scooters after a 5 minute tutorial (as neither of us have ever driven them), and cruise the roads that figure-8 the two volcanoes, I highly recommend renting dirtbikes or scooters on the island, as there is so much too and visit, and being the boss of your timetable allows you to enjoy activities more. After Ometepe, Frances and I went to the infamous San Juan del Sur, one of the most world-renowned spots in Nicaragua. In my opinion, Nicaragua has so much more to boast than bars full of drunken surfers, but if one has the time, might as well check it out, there are several beautiful beaches near that area. It was an appropriate way to start my non-PC time in Nicaragua by visiting one of the most gringo-y places in the country after renting scooters, something prohibited by PC policy. Whoo, rebel!!
Scooters on Ometepe with the active volcano Concepcion in the background

-From a chicken bus to the Tica Bus: 
Stop number one- Costa Rica! To get to Costa Rica from Nicaragua, one can fly, or take the much cheaper, 7 hour bus ride from Rivas, Nicaragua, to San Jose, Costa Rica. The bus is air conditioned, takes bathroom breaks, and has enough seats for passengers; therefore it was already classified as luxury status in my book. Frances, Blake and I begin our dream team travels the morning of Monday, June 10. Border crossing wasn't hard for us, although I hear that Costa Rica wants to see that people entering their country have a definite plan to leave it. Therefore, if your plane or bus ticket is only one way, you NEED to show them that you have a flight or bus out. Plan accordingly. If this doesn't get in your way, the border crossing is relatively painless. We took Tica Bus, there is also Nica Express and Trans Nica, all air-conditioned, and therefore wonderful. Note: pack a parka for the buses. 
Clothing necessary for buses

-San Jose for the night:
Alas! After a smooth ride, Frances, Blake and I arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was cold!! When we first arrived, I actually had no idea that were had actually reached our destination (I hadn't been to San Jose in over two years) but got off the bus because everyone else was doing it. San Jose, Costa Rica, we had arrived! We saw clean streets, and people forming lines to get on the public transportation. Blake had tears of joy in his eyes as he watched passengers orderly wait in line to get on the bus. We only had the afternoon in San Jose, as the next day we had a shuttle arranged to take us the the beautiful Bocas del Torro, a Carribean archipelago of Panama. My friend Frances had come and roughed it with me for a week in my Nicaraguan territory, and now it was time for her to show me Bocas, where she lived and worked for 7 months starting May 2011.Therefore, we spent our one day in San Jose walking around the central area, which has a beautiful national theater building. We stayed at the same hostel I'd stayed at before with Frances and Matt (shoutout Matt Straney!) when we came 3 years ago, Pangea, which was actually the first hostel I'd ever stayed in (the first of many!). The hostel had hot water! Development at its finest...

-From Costa Rica to Panama
DIY is definitely the way to go for cutting out extravagant tour agency fees, but is oh-so-worth-it sometimes to not have to think about 3 bus transfers and the logistics of a ten-hour trek, which is what we had ahead of us to get from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Bocas del Torro, Panama. In this case, Frances had worked for us us a $45 deal on a  normally $70 dollar trip so we said "done!" We got picked up in a sweet micro-van and cruised through Costa Rica to it's famous Puerto Viejo. On the way in, I noticed that the country was incredibly lush, and the country was so vibrantly green. I hope it's started raining in Nicaragua....

Isla Zapateria


Starfish on Starfish Beach 

After lunch Puerto Viejo (San Jose-Puerto is 5-6 hours, depending of labor strikes and traffic, which we encountered), we hopped on another bus to Changiola, the Costa Rica border town. Crossing the border consisted of walking a decrepit bridge over the Sixaola river while Panama waited on the other side.        

-Panama fever
The border to Panama
If someone asks you to go to Bocos del Torro, Panama, do it! It is one of the most unique places I have ever been. We stayed in the rainforest hostel with the resort where Frances used to work on Isla Bastimentos (the main island is called Isla Colon), and every day had the option of adventure or leisure. I liked that although caters to tourists, the culture of the native people is still present, as we saw when we went to Bastimentos town for lunch with a few of France's family friends. "Mami" welcomed us in her home and served us a whole fish, with huge side of coconut rice, spagetti, and salad and it was one of the most enjoyed meals I'd ever had. On top of a great culture, these islands have spelunking in secret caves, pristine rainforests, sloth-spotting, starfish beaches and water-taxis as the main method of transportation. Who wouldn't want to take a boat to the bar?   

After losing Frances in Bocas (sad face), Blake and I were destined for Panama City. From Bocas, it is a short ten hour bus ride, which we had reserved tickets for a week in advance. Therefore, it was a little disheartening as we got to our water taxi to take us to the mainland we were given back our money, without bus tickets, and told that "our reservation still existed at the bus station." We got to the bus, and both night buses were full. Thankfully, our new friend Canadian Bill told us about a city 6 hours away where buses left for Panama City at more frequent intervals. David, Panama, here we come!
Frances and I being exhausted after vacationing too hard

We arrived at David around 9:45 pm, just in time for the 10pm bus. Which was also full. Who knew that so many people would be traveling to Panama City the Monday night after Father's Day? There was a 12 am bus that still had availability, so Canadian Bill, Blake and I signed right up. Panama has great buses for long distance travel, and I got my first double-decker bus experience, it was sweet! After a red-eye ride, we role into Panama City around 7:30am with our mochilas and a desire to see the famous canal. 
Boat crossing Panama Canal

I learned a lot our day in Panama City. Number one: that is canal viewing area of Miraflores Locks doesn't open until 9 am. Also, the interworking of the canal is incredible, and speaks volumes of mankind's power to manipulate nature. Just look up how to locks of the canal work. We were lucky enough to get there right ships were crossing the Miraflores Lock, and got to see the system in action. Panama City is a neat place; it has the part of town comparable to Miami with towering skyscrapers, but also the beautiful "Casco Viejo" (or old town) that has cobblestone streets and a wonderful ambience. Not to mention a "mercado de mariscos" where you can get $2 ceviche of any flavor and a huge plate of red snapper or sea bass for $6 bucks. I am going back to Panama City just for that one day. There is also a beautiful walkway along the water that connects the old city with the skyscrapers, highly recommended for those who wish to run off that fried snapper and patacones the next morning.
Panama City Fish Market 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A little ketchup.

Por fin, after over 2 and a half years of living in Nicaragua working as a PC Volunteer, I have completed my service and am moving on. Since March, I had been tying up loose ends by ending projects and preparing myself, townspeople and other friends for my departures ("Yes, I am leaving.. Next month actually! No I won't be coming back the next week. I could never for you!". When the majority of my group of Nica 58 left (of the 15 to complete service, 3 extended for a year, 11 left around March 28, and I was "held back" for a few months), I was by no means prepared to end my PC service. I still had projects to finish, best friends (and mothers) to visit, lots of items to give away, and people to say goodbye to. It was advantageous to have my friends in Nica 58 give me advice on how to prepare my delayed COS, what signatures are the hardest to get or what is the hardest get done in the office. Thanks to their advice and lots of prep time, when June 4 came, I was ready to go.

As those of you who have moved know, it's not easy. It amazes me how many possessions I had accumulated in my two years, they must not have been essential nick-nacks either, as I was still living out of a suitcase in year one. It was quite liberating ridding myself of unnecessary goods, which I had more of than I'd like to admit (sometimes, kids would come into my house, look at my shoes under my bed, and ask if I had a store). It's amazing how much stuff we think we need to have, and how many things we actually need. I want to keep this lesson in my mind when I return to the States; there is a balance between having too spartan a lifestyle and distracting ourselves with excessive goods. That balance is different for everyone but we must always take a second to step back and evaluate ourselves (not others!). I suppose I will always myself a real coffee maker when I get back to the states, this sock-filter-thing is starting to look a little drab. I will not however, buy 3 coffee machines for myself to eliminate having to walk to another room for coffee. It's all about balance people.

With this in mind, I was able to give away enough things to pack up my past two years of life in 3 bags, which I sent back with my incredible mother. She had graciously agreed to visit one last time to soak in the glory of San Fernando, and to smuggle coffee, rum and other essential items back into the states. I couldn't have brought back the wild chicken mask that I won in my first half-marathon, ceramic gifts from friends, or authentic Nicaraguan hammocks without her help, and I will be forever grateful for her presence in my final weeks. It was also amazing getting to share my life here with her (as it has been with everyone who has visited me, I have the best friends ever!!); she got to experience the wonderful (and not so great) sides of Nicaragua, a simple (yet beautiful, as my friend Caro told me after roughing it with me) way of life, and now understands a new perspective. Therefore, it was necessary for her to experience cold showers, ungodly amounts of smoke, and latrines.

Now to goodbyes... Two years is ample time to form many relationships and friendships. I have met incredible people here and made of my best friends. Yet I had to say goodbye. It was a little sad, but not the worst. In this day and age, many "goodbyes" are in reality, not goodbyes at all, but instead a "let's keep in touch" on facebook, instagram, or whatever you kids are doing nowadays. I am going to have to get a smartphone when I get stateside; I don't think my razor can download WhatsApp. It's incredible how technology allows my brother to talk to my parents face-to-face from Istanabul, Turkey, or how I can call my friends to catch up from the wifi at my neighbors house (who now have a classy NC coffee mug as a token of my appreciation.) In this day and age, going to live far away from a person doesn't have to mean goodbye, but instead, see you later. (One of my favorite cheesy lines.. Also see: HAGS, LYLAS, BFF)

On June 5, 2014, I did the ceremonious "ringing of the best." It is when a PCV, after doing their final medical reviews, submitting their official description of service, completing their exit interviews with bosses, and obtaining clearance signatures,  triumphantly rings a bell in the middle of the PC office to symbolize the completion of their service. To prepare for this, I left my site on June 4 on the 6:30 am bus, which was of course, packed well beyond capacity. Thankfully, after two years, I had established a friendship with the bus crew, and was able to get 3 seats reserved for my mother, my visiting friend Frances, and myself. Our luggage was delicately thrown above, and we were squeezed inside. Even with seats, the strong smell of humans packed in a small space like cattle was palpable, and I was pleased by the fact that this was to be my final San Fernando-Managua bus ride, as was Frances. My mother seemed to have found her zen. When I glanced over 2.5 hours in on the 5 hour bus ride, she seemed to be unfazed by the puking babies in the seats in front and behind her. I was so proud of her. Wednesday afternoon was my final medical interview, and medics were very proud of me for having serviced my service without having contracted dengue, scabies, and only a few cases of stomach amoebas or parasites. In my two years, I´d only had a skin fungus, one ant bite to the eardrum, and no major medical emergencies. Heck, I was a golden volunteer! Since PC is funded by the US government, there weresome bureaucracies     to address, so it was nice having Wednesday to finish beaucratic obligations, such as verifying that I have no outstanding debts, saying that I would only fly American Airlines, and yadda yadda. So, when Thursday morning rolled around, I was ready! I turned in my cell phone chip to Eynard, PC Nicaragua's techie, and I ran to the stairwell where the bell hangs. I gave a big shout, grabbed the bell, and clanged away. All PC staff and volunteers in the office rang outside to clap and congratulate me, it was a very special moment. This was it The end of an era. I had been preparing for this for a very long time, and at last the moment came. After over two and a half years of living in Nicaragua, I had successfully completed service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and now I was done. Was I sad? I suppose a little, as it is always a little bit sad to end an era of your life that has been good to you, but more so than sad, I was excited and ready to begin the next era. My time in Peace Corps has allowed me to form unforgettable relationships with natives and other US citizens, prepared me for the next phase of my life, allowed me to grow up, and taught me invaluable life lessons that I will forever cherish.
Sideways picture of me ringing the bell

Note: Next posts will be from various countries, as I travel Latin America for a month before heading stateside!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What We Take for Granted.

The entirety of one’s Peace Corps service allows for much self-reflection, and I have been especially nostalgic as the end of my service nears. My health group, “Nica 58,” officially ends its 27-month commitment March 28, 2014, but I will be extending until June 6, 2014 in order to finish a series of workshops that I am organizing and facilitating with nurses for volunteer health workers from rural communities that is funded with a grant from USAID.) With my emotions ranging from excited to go yet sad to leave  Nicaragua, I have found myself vacillating from one end to the other. Therefore, I have compiled two conflicting lists, one consisting of the many amenities that we have in America that I cannot wait to get back to, and another of the many things that I will miss from my second home.

As a disclaimer, I would like to state that this first list may look pessimistic, but it is followed by another list of the many things Nicaragua has got right that America could learn from. Therefore, when people ask me “Which country is better?” I say that is not a question that has a definitive answer, as each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. I have many Nicaraguan friends who went to the United States to work legally for long enough to save just enough money to get back to Nicaragua and live comfortably. They appreciated the States but Nicaragua was their end goal. The Nicaraguan lifestyle is more relaxed and less stressful. In the States, we cram our lives with work, while still making time for happy hour. We don’t sleep. Some can’t sleep, others stay up late playing on their gadgets or watching the latest shows. Others simply continue working. The United States and Nicaragua have many similarities, but are ultimately very different; one is not better than the other and both should be appreciated for what they are.

Ok, here is goes…

Things we take for granted in the United States (in no particular order).

·     * Enforced maximum capacity limits and safety regulations on public transportation: In the States, we have standards for public transportation. Buses usually come with air-conditioning and guaranteed seats with a ticket. Here, I travel on “Broward County” elementary school buses that were donated in the 1990s. There are not enough buses and many times it is an unpleasant ride. I have stood for five-hour bus rides, and sitting three-deep in a seat made for two elementary students is not uncommon. I have been puked on (gallo-pinto is not pretty coming up), been a victim of theft, been accosted, made friends, held unknown babies, and dodged belligerently drunk men on the buses. And my parents wonder why I hitchhike… (Don’t tell PC!)
·      *Animal Control: Animals are not pets here. They are items, picked up by humans at whim, and the responsibilities of owning an animal are discarded like trash out the crowded bus window. We have a dog, named Gabby, affectionately nick-named Crabby-Gabby by all English speakers that have met her. She is the only dog that has been with my family my entire two years in San Fernando. I have witnessed the birth (and death) of four others. I am attacked by dogs on 80% on the runs that I go on, and my mom can tell you horror stories about the gangs of dogs in heat that roam my town at night. The NGOs that give free animal neutering and spaying are doing a wonderful service for the animals and the humans around them, and I would like to invite them to northern Nicaragua. If not, just give me the tools, I’ll figure it out.
·     * Indoor plumbing/Reliable water source: Many of my PCV friends take the legendary “bucket bath” their entire 2 years of service because they do not have running water -especially those Ag volunteers. I must admit I am not as hardcore as them, since I have one faucet, one sink, a shower, and a toilet in my house. However, it is not uncommon for the water to stop working in entire towns for days on end, which can get especially rough during the dry season. One of my favorite memories in site is going with Jessica, one of my closest woman-friends, to the river to bathe, although I think we actually came out dirtier. Can you imagine if the water in your house or town went out for the next few hours? Now try the next few days?
·      *Reliable power: Just like running water, the electricity in this country is a fickle friend. “Se fue la luz” (the light went away) with a shrug of the shoulders is a common phrase here, and we have to accept it. It can strike at any moment and can last for indeterminable periods of time. It has happened to me when I hosted “movie night” with my youth group (they ate the popcorn but did not enjoy that movie), had been cooking with an electric stove, (is there such thing as “egg-sushi?), and during the evening (hence my occasional 7:30pm bedtime).  Remember when the electricity for the SuperBowl went away for thirty minutes, and the country was in uproar? Ha! Here, it’s just another day in the life. Oh look! The lights just came back on!!
·      *Hot water: A little piece of my soul dies with every cold shower I take…
·      *Food diversity: I guarantee that you, sitting there with your laptop, smart phone, tablet, etc, have access to at least three different ethnic food options within twenty minutes of you. You have “alternative” or health food options. The culture here does not cater to that, dining out is an expense that many can not afford; therefore there is not a demand for cafes, Japanese steakhouses, or Taco Bells (there is not even a Taco Bell in this country) This makes PCVs get more creative with the preparation of their food (I’ve learned how to make homemade peanut-butter and pesto, among other things) but wouldn’t it be so nice to walk into a Whole Foods store after meeting up with friends for sushi….
·      *Running in shorts as a girl: The running culture has yet to catch on in the more rural areas. My town thinks I am always sprinting away in fear of something (probably the dogs!!).
·      *Expecting good customer service: In the States, I’ve already heard such emphasis on “satisfaction guaranteed!” and “the customer is always right!” Here, I bought a “new” cell phone from a company representative that didn’t work, and guess what, I had to eat the costs. What?!? Isn’t there a hotline I can call and whine to, and then I’ll get a new iphone? Nope, actually, no one cares if you aren’t happy with your experience, you shouldn’t have been stupid enough to get conned, been lured onto a bus going the opposite direction, or ordered food that the cook didn’t feel like preparing (beef is almost the same thing as fish, just eat it and quit trying to send it back.)
·      *Education opportunities: As much as we whine about our educational system in the US, it’s amazing. For the most part, teachers have experience and have degrees in their field; teachers with math degrees, teach math, not art. Students are taught critical thinking skills.  Kids go to school from 8am-3pm, and have a certain number of days that HAVE to be taught. Here, the days last from 7:30am-12pm or 12:30pm-5pm, and accordingly to nonofficial studies of PCVs that work in the classroom, 50% of scheduled classes are cancelled due to national holidays, fairs, meetings, or the teacher’s personal issues. Even if the teacher is experienced in their field (and hasn’t just been switched from math to literature at whim) and cares about the students’ education, the structure of the education system puts these kids and their teachers at a disadvantage before they have even begun.
·      *The highway transportation system: The other week, I saw a dead horse in the middle of the highway. It had been plastered by the truck I saw with the broken windshield 30 meters up the road. I see semi-trucks passing semi-trucks, both emitting black fumes and neither passing safety standards for emissions. Driving rules, when they exist, are not respected. Never in the States had I seen a mother, father, and their two kids in between them on a motorcycle.
·      *Accessible Internet: Every blog I write, I write from out random locations, save them onto my computer, and wait until the opportune moment of internet access presents itself. Some PC Nicaragua volunteers have wifi from their homes (and they probably have jobs by now), but I yearn for the day when I can send an email when I want. Oh America, the land of milk and wifi….
·      *Mass communication: Want to send a funny email to your colleagues?  When only 80% of people have cell phones, and that damned 1% has internet, good luck getting that message out. Smoke signals or messenger pigeons are your best bet to tell someone about that meeting tomorrow at noon.
·      *Recycling Programs/Environmental Awareness: Although America is one of the top producers of greenhouse gases and trash in the world, there are many program in place to alleviate the problem. My favorite weekend activity as a child was going to the Gilkey Recycling Center with my dad to put green glass in the recycling container with other green glass and throw plastic bottles in the container with other plastic bottles. We were doing our part to keep the world greener! I remember seeing multiple trash-cans on the street, one for every possible material to encourage recycling. Here, there are not recycling programs (although I have seem some in gringo-y areas, such as Corn Island). It hurts me every time I see a plastic bottle in the trash-can. Environmental awareness is a new idea here, when kids are done with their candy, they throw the wrapper on the ground. Trash is usually burned, as many towns do not have reliable trash services. The geography and natural landscape of Nicaragua is absolutely beautiful (just ask anyone who has come to visit!), yet the importance of protecting it is lost.
·      *The presence of toilet paper in people’s houses and public facilities: A seasoned Nicaraguan brings toilet paper with them everywhere they go. Most of the time it is not in home bathrooms, and never in public restrooms. I have to bring toilet paper with me to the bathroom in my own house.
·      *Extracurriculars and hobbies: Most people here do not have the luxury of leisure-time. After washing clothes (by hand) all day, chopping firewood, maintaining a fire for hours to cook beans, waiting hours for packed buses or walking miles in a day, most people don’t have the energy to learn how to play guitar or read books and contemplate existential matters. My brother once mentioned Aristotle’s idea of “the responsibility of leisure,” which has stuck in my mind ever since. It is the idea that those who have the privilege of free time have a responsibility to use that free time to better themselves intellectually and, in turn, humanity. While many people here are focusing on day-to-day survival, we have the privilege of being able to dedicate time to enriching our minds and communities. Therefore, we should not abuse or waste it.

Remember, these are things that I will appreciate so much more when I return to the States. However, there are a multitude of qualities that Nicaragua and its society has that I never experienced in America, and I will miss these dearly.

Things I will miss about Nicaragua:

·      *The best tasting tropical fruit: I did not like bananas until I came here. To ensure that bananas arrive to the States appropriate for consumption, they are cut prematurely and shipped to the States. They may look yellow, but never had the time to properly ripen and develop the sweet, wonderful flavor that bananas have here. During March, April, and May, I can walk into my backyard and hunt a delicious mango. I have eaten here at least 5 different types of fruits and vegetables that I never knew existed (mamones, jocote, nancite, anyone?).
·      *That 10 cent cup of coffee: ..or that $40 rent. That $4 pedicure. I am nervous for my transition back. (You want $10 for lunch?!?! That is outrageous!!)
·      *Walking down main street with a donkey on your side.
·      *Running the back mountain roads of northern Nicaragua: It’s moments like those where I think about where I am, what I am doing, and I feel so good about life. It’s pretty cool.
·      *The sense of community: I am able to pop into someone’s house unannounced to have a chat, drink a coffee, or watch soap operas. The majority of Nicaraguan towns still have that “small-town friendly” feel because, well, they are small towns.
·      *Asking your neighbor for some sugar: It is perfectly acceptable to pop you head into Doña Silvia’s house while cooking and ask for some tortillas or beans.
·      *My outhouse: I know that indoor plumbing was on the list of things I can’t wait to get back too, but I’ll actually miss my outhouse a lot. It’s so peaceful out there in the morning.
·      *Normal portion sizes: When I first got to this country, I kept thinking that the family restaurants were underfeeding us, (which I couldn’t complain about since meals cost 1-3 dollars). Yet I realized, I was perfectly satiated without the super-size-me-hamburger and 60-ounce Coca-Cola. I actually felt a lot better about not spending $15 on a portion size I could never hope to eat but hated to waste. We have gotten used to outrageous and unnecessary portion sizes.
·      *Hitchhiking: It is so common here. I was nervous my first time hopping into the back of a stranger’s truck, but there is only one highway, and everyone is usually empathetic and open enough to let any traveller in their extra space. It’s one of the quickest and cheapest ways to get around. Nevertheless, once I’m stateside, I don’t think that it will be socially acceptable or safe to stick my finger out and hop in the back of any random car.
·      *The pristine sunsets over Nicaragua’s numerous beautiful backdrops. Whether it’s coastline, mountains, or tropical rivers by the jungle, they are incredible.

There you have it- a bit of reflection after a couple years in country.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happily Ever After and Holidays-Nica-Style!

…At the end of movies, it usually gives the “happily ever after” vibe. One assumes that the couple gets married, has beautiful and perfect children, and lives in their house with their white picket fences while staying madly in love the rest of their lives.
            Well, that happily ever after does not exist. That couple may gets in fights, perhaps one of their children develops a drinking problem, and maybe their house gets foreclosed on. How have I discovered this harsh reality? Well, after successfully taking down two rats in a week, I thought the war was over. However, the next night, I woke up to hear another chewing on something of mine, and this morning I saw it scurrying across my floor, taunting me. This losing mouse-war that I am in is representative of the bigger picture; there is never a happily ever-after, where everything is perfect from there on out. Life will always throw us curve balls, or rodents. Yet I don’t mind this, how stale would life be if there never existed some challenge. Sometimes we get caught up in the current problems of our lives, obsessed with the idea that “when we fix this, everything will be ok forever.” It won’t. I guess the take-home lesson is that one way or another, there are solutions to our problems, but there is no solution to ALL of our problems for the rest of our lives, nor will we ever stop having problems. No matter how big or small, we have to be able to cope with them. As far my problem of a few mice in my room, I’ll deal with it. As long as I avoid getting cholera or leptospirosis.

            I used to say San Fernando only had room for only one gringo, but these last three months have taught me otherwise. Although it is a little town, there are still undiscovered nooks and untapped social circles. San Fernando is a very religious town (like the majority of towns in Nicaragua), and has an orphanage run by a catholic convent of nuns.  I didn’t even really know about the orphanage until one of the nuns became my pupil in the community English class that I started up in April, and was always accompanied by three young girls from the orphanage. I saw them always come out of a building, and I guessed that the younger girls with them weren’t quite nuns yet. Sor Daisy called me the other day and told me they would be having someone from the states staying with them, and would love if I would orient her, since she was still learning the Spanish language. It has been quite the treat having a padawon in my town, Her name is Anna, she is a 19 year-old from a small town in upstate New York. She had done volunteer work the organization Mission of Hope in Nicaragua twice before while in high school, and volunteered for three months in Africa after graduating high school. After doing one semester and realizing that her heart wasn’t in it, she wanted to explore other options. Mission of Hope suggested for her to volunteer at a small orphanage run by nuns in a small town in northern Nicaragua for a semester to figure things out, and here she is.  What a random, small world we live in. I’ve gotten her and the nuns in the habit of walking with me every morning in their tennis shoes and nun-attire, thus inspiring the phrase- “nuns in action!” and I’ve gotten to see what wonderful work these two women do for the fifteen children living in the home. It is eye-opening to see how delicate children are, but how resilient they can be. I am so thankful for people like Sor Delia and Sor Deisy, who have dedicated their lives to giving a family and safe home to children that would otherwise not have either of these things. Many people would not choose to be a nun caring for children at an orphanage in rural Nicaragua, but they did. It’s pretty cool that each one of us have our own special niche in this world; otherwise we’d all be astronauts or firefighters.
            We always hear our elders telling us to enjoy our youth, because then you blink and the next thing you know you are 35 years old with a mortgage, and then you blink again and you are 76 years old and you are waving your cane at the neighbors’ kids, yelling at them to get off your lawn. It’s true!!! Time flies. Before entering Peace Corps, I was mortified at the thought of a 27-month commitment, at least 1/20th of my life. The first three months of training stretched as if they were an eternity, and my first year definitely had some “No way am I do xx more months of this.” However, I found a groove, made a second home, and before I knew it, the end was near. My group, Nica 58, just had our Close of Service (COS) Conference, and we all become very aware of our PC mortality. COS Conference is for the PCV that are about to end their service, and its focus is to prepare volunteers on how to wrap up their projects, so that when the time of departure comes, they are ready to “re-enter” life in the States, and not start every sentence with “This one time, I was in Peace Corps…” It was very surreal to be sitting in a conference room with my group, discussing the end of our service, when it feels like yesterday was January 2012, and we were in Washington D.C., nervous about our departure. El tiempo vuela (Time flies).
            I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas!! Going home for Christmas last year was an extremely important part of my service last year, as it was my only first and only time visiting America, and being with my family that Christmas meant the world to me. However, due to a Turkish wedding (of my big brother Dean!! Congrats Dean!!), the complicated flights of Nicaragua-Turkey, lack of vacation days on my part, and my desire to have a holiday in Nicaraguan, this year Christmas was spent in-country, Nica-style! I was excited to see how Christmas is done in a tropical country where Santa cannot afford extravagancies. Vacations started for all government workers (meaning my co-workers at the health center, trash pick-up workers, mayor’s offices, etc) on Friday December 20, and will last until January 6, which is “Dia de Los Reyes.” I hope not too many people get sick at the same time over this time period, because we’ve got only 1 doctor and 1 nurse on call in my town of 10,000 people. Regardless, the town was becoming festive. The church put on plays in the park, re-enacting biblical scenes, carolers could be heard singing, and some townspeople decorated their houses with lights and nativity scenes. The main day of celebration here is not the 25th, but the 24th. We awoke this Christmas Eve day with the roaring of the pick-up truck and 12-year old Jeison prodding me with a machete, telling me it was time to get the Christmas tree. The elder son, Oswaldo, drove the pick-up truck through the rough and unpaved road to their mountain property while 6-6-year old Drixana tried to impress me with her truck-riding skills but not holding on the handles in the back. Impress me, no- She succeeded in terrifying me. I could picture the headlines… “Peace Corps Volunteer lets host-sister fly out of truck Christmas Eve. Machete Involved..”
            We made to our very Nicaraguan version of a Christmas tree farm, called the forest, and picked out trees for the family. We brought them home, and decorated them with whatever few ornaments we had, balloons, and scattered sawdust around the bottom. With extra branches, my family decorated outside pillars with the extra branches, and created their own nativity scene, with a baby Jesus that was to be unveiled at midnight the 24th going into the 25th. Gifts can be given on this day, but in many families they are not expected. In the case of my family of four children, the only gifts they received were a “monopolio” board from me, and a few dolls from an aunt. It was a very different feel from when I was a child, and my siblings and I fought over which child had more presents under the tree, but it was Christmas none-the-less. Instead of presents-galore, the mantra of a Nicaraguan Christmas is “Nacatamales until you burst!” A nacatamale is like a homemade hot pocket, with pork stuffed into crust of corn meal and lard infused with spices and wrapped in a banana leaf. These nacatamales require quite a bit of preparation, and the women are frantically working all day the 24th to whip out the required production. There are also the traditional foods of “gallina rellena” (chicken stuffed with pork and minced veggies) and “lomo relleno” (pork back-strap stuff with minced chicken and veggies); I was a big fan of these traditional foods and the irony of stuffing one dead animal with the meat of another dead animal. They both were delicious! The night of the 24th, there was an 8o’clock church service, followed by religious activities in the park, and then everyone goes to house parties to wait for the birth of Jesus! This felt more like New Year’s Eve to me than Christmas Eve, because at 12o’clock sharp, we began cheering and fireworks went off to celebrate! Since everyone stays up celebrating the 24th, the 25th is the lower-key day of the two, and many use this day to nurse their hangovers by eating leftover nacatamales. Thanks to a surprise present of pancake batter (one has to go to the city capital for some Mrs. Butters) from another PCV, I was able to preserve my US family’s tradition of pancakes on Christmas morning, and we made banana pancakes for the entire family, extended family, and even a few neighbors. Even without presents and snow (and my beloved US family near, who I was able to talk to J), my very Nica Christmas was an amazing experience, one that I will never forget. I can’t wait to see what New Year’s is like- rumor has it that explosive rag-dolls are involved…

Friday, December 13, 2013

Letter to a future volunteer...

My boss recently asked if we would be willing to write letters for recent Peace Corps Nicaragua invitees.. This is a letter for individuals who have gotten an invitation to serve as a PC volunteer in Nicaragua in the health sector, and have accepted. This is for all of you considering Peace Corps, regardless of sector or country, or for those curious of a senior Peace Corps volunteer's reflective thoughts on her service and her advice potential newbies...

Dear future PC Volunteer,

            The fact that you are reading this little booklet tells me a few things about you. First, you are ready for the adventure of a lifetime- why else would you have signed up to leave behind the conventional comforts of the developed world to dedicate 27 months of service in Nicaragua, a raw tropical beauty, yet possibly quite unfamiliar to you. Second, you are determined- the application process, with its interviews, medical reviews, and stacks-upon-stacks of paperwork, is not for the weak-hearted, and you have successfully stuck it out. Third, you are a qualified individual- you have been selected to join the Peace Corps family because of your determination and positive attributes that you have displayed throughout the application process, and since no one has the exact credentials that you have, no one is ever going to be a Peace Corps volunteer just like you; the possibilities of your service in Nicaragua are endless.

            So, what are the next steps from here? When I accepted my invitation and got a ton of information, I began to feel overwhelmed thinking about my 27-month commitment. Try not to in terms of your entire Peace Corps Service, but instead take it month-by-month, or week-by-week. Depending of your departure date, you will have months or weeks between now and your staging event- this time is best used enjoying the luxuries of America and focusing on the relationships that you have there, versus obsessing over the unknown. Nicaragua has an amazingly rich history that you will learn and appreciate all the more once you have lived here, no amount of research on Nicaragua’s past will replace what this country will teach you through conversations with those who have lived it. Therefore, for now, do a little reading, make sure you can find Nicaragua on a map, but focus on preparing yourself to leave your home and the relationships and rituals that are with it. Spend quality time with friends and family, for you may not see them for the next couple years. Find time to do those little things that you have always wanted to do, such as take that four hour drive to visit a loved one, visit that new café on your street, or try out that new yoga class. In my case, I started guitar lessons my last three months in America, and now, I can bless Nicaraguan ears strumming my four cord repertoire. Once again, this time should be focused on you and fortifying the relationships important to you, so that when you leave, you won’t be leaving loved ones behind, but bringing them with you on this adventure through emails, letters, phone calls, or smoke-signals.

            When your staging date finally arrives, you will meet an amazing group of people who are distinct from you in background and credentials, but similar to you in their motivation to help others and thirst for adventure. Even though you do not know each other well (yet!), these people will be one of your strongest support networks from the moment you board that Managua-bound plane and beyond. Those first three months of training will be focused on teaching you Spanish (don’t fret, you’ll learn it!), preparing you to be a health educator and adapting you culturally to Nicaragua. I remember being nervous before coming, thinking that my background did not sufficiently qualify me to teach Nicaraguans about HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, the risks of adolescent pregnancy, or other health topics. However, once you get here, you will meet our qualified health program leaders (our bosses!), other PCVS, and Nicaraguan professionals that will teach you about the health sector, all of the health topics, and dynamic ways to teach each one. By the end of training, you will feel qualified and ready to become a community health promoter and educator, wherever your site may be!

            Once you become an official volunteer, your service is completely shaped by you. Some activities I do as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Health Sector are: I co-teach classes with Nicaraguan teachers to students about sexual and reproductive health, I host soccer tournaments that have an educational component to promote healthy lifestyle choices for youth, or I give training sessions volunteer community health workers on health topics such as proper hand-washing, dental hygiene, dengue prevention, or how to have a healthy pregnancy. Another project I have enjoyed is surveying migrant coffee pickers in regards to their HIV knowledge and condom use. I go to huge coffee farms (some as big as 500 acres!), where thousands of coffee workers migrate from all over the country, and I one-on-one assess their sexual health knowledge, and afterwards give sexual health education and condom demonstrations to groups of workers. One of the beauties of Peace Corps is that no one will ever have a service like yours. Whatever your interests and abilities are, you can capitalize on them to enjoy your service to the fullest and fulfill your potential!

            Your 27 months will also consist of getting completely immersing yourself in another culture and will be an invaluable experience that is unparalleled and irreplaceable. You will learn Spanish, make new friends, and create a home for yourself. In the meantime, I suggest you try not to make too many expectations. Like I said, your experience will be totally unique to you, and in Peace Corps, expectations function to close your mind to the numerous opportunities that await you.

            You are going to become part the Peace Corps Nicaragua family, and we couldn’t be happier to have you! Each one of us has our own special story and we are so excited to meet you and watch you create yours.


Helen Schafer

Nica 58 (2012-2014)