Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fiesta en la Iglesia

On Sunday, I went to my host mom’s church; it was celebrating the 130th anniversary. Luisa is evangelista, so she’s there like almost every night. There’s really only two types of religion here- Catholics and evangelists (which is just every other Christian). At least this church has a “band”.
Allison and Molly showed up, their families are also evangelistas. We sat in the back of a really hot, really crowded church while the pastor droned on … in Spanish. We understood about 1 out of every 5 or 10 words, so it was hot, crowed AND boring.
When it was all over, everyone spilled out to the concrete basketball court/patio. There was lots of food and even a mariachi band complete with festive outfits. That was cool and a little bit like a Mexican restaurant- if we’d been inside and all the patrons had been Latinos.
After eating, Molly wanted the empty soda bottles so we collected some around us and lined them up. Some kids saw and without saying a word, started gathering them as well – from under chairs, asking people for their empty ones, standing beside people still eating and waiting for them to finish their bottles! They really got into it, even going elbows deep in trash bags where people tossed their food plates. Ok, that was kind of gross, but I commend their enthusiasm, especially since they had no idea what we were doing. Molly’s mom helped, also scrounging around in the trash bags overflowing with un-eatened and messy food scraps. (Eew again.) She even gathered a bunch of used plastic spoons in a pile by the trash bags. Back in the states it would have been a huge ewww factor but these kids just dove in, interesting because we have less hand washing resource here.
I found out Molly wanted to cut the bottles and plant pepinos (cucumbers) with the girls. Afterwards, we walked home with the girls and helped them bring their little “plants”. Off the main street, we turned down a little dirt alley between two concrete houses. Their home was in the back and I was shocked at the poverty they live in. You know those commercials that try to get us to send money to children in poor countries? They always show these skinny sad-looking kids living in terrible conditions and the announcer is saying “Imagine going to bed hungry because there’s no food. Juanito only gets one cup of rice a day and has no water.” Yeah, I watched those commercials and they made me wince. Now I felt like I had walked into that television screen and right in to the home that poor starving child lived in.
There was a muddy dirt front area that continued into their little concrete house, as its own dirt floor. There were no windows and no door, just a doorway cut out. The dirt floor was rutted and uneven, not packed down like some homes to look like concrete- there was no mistaking this was a dirt floor. It was very dark inside, I don’t think they had electricity. Their home was no bigger than a large bedroom, 20 x20 feet. There was an older woman sitting in a plastic chair in the “living room” and a kid sitting in a hammock made from sack material. There looked to be two bedrooms, sectioned off from the rest of the space by hanging sheets. Their washing stone was outside and I’m sure they must cook outside too.
(At this time, I had no idea that these living conditions are all too common in the poorer areas like my site and I would see people living in even more abject poverty.)
So we helped the girls place their little bottle planters in the tiny dirt space behind the house and explained the two things the cucumbers needed to grow strong were sunlight and water. If only that was all these two little girls needed. They were sweet and enthusiastic, like all they need was the right circumstances to shoot across the sky like comets.
A little while later we were on a nearby street corner, talking to mi mama, when John walked up and Allison came over. A small mentally handicapped woman came over and started talking to us. She knew how to say “hello, my friend” and I think was happy to have someone to practice that phrase one. (From then on, whenever I saw her in the street she would say this greeting to me.) She is an artisan and took us to her house two doors down (another rather primitive, dim home that was made brighter by the colorful pottery hanging on the walls).  She took us to the small, dark back room and promptly cut off a hunk of clay sitting in a bag on the floor, plopped it on the stone wheel and started working with her hands. She did this so smoothly and perfectly, as if from years of practice. The pottery wheel was on wood apparatus, like all the others I’ve seen in town. It had a wooden seat, flat stone wheel connected by a wood pole to a larger stone wheel a few feet below. She kicked it with her foot and the top stone started spinning. She worked that lump of clay patiently for about 15 minutes into a beautiful vase. She kicked and kneaded and concentrated in this small, cramped windowless room; the only light from a small hole in the metal roof directly about her. The faint light streamed down the highlight her little form hunched over this round stone wheel, little brown hands deftly working her craft. It was mesmerizing.
At the end she stood from the primitive pottery wheel and in halting English “ Thank you.. for looking… my work”. Her daughter showed us some finished (fired and painted) items. I was really moved. Whatever her disability, she is one of the most talented artists I have seen here… and there are many.

Side note: I completely forgot it was 9-11 today; man I am in a total other universe here.  A place where the 10th anniversary an even that shaped the US so dramatically has no meaning. The disconnect really throws me; it’s like I’m in a time warp here where things like A/C and driving a car and watching the nightly news is slowing losing its meaning.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Crying in Caterina

I am writing this on my laptop in the middle of a "tormenta"- the rain is falling really hard and its pitch black because the power went out.
Today we had a "charla" (workshop) on different environmental topics. It was in the bibliotecha (library)/alcaldia (mayor's office) in Caterina, which is a small little town across the highway from my pueblo. We walked there early this morning and sat in a training workshop for about four hours (in English, thank G-d).
Caterina is pretty tiny but it’s got the library, a big church and a few chachka shops for tourists. There's also a mirador (lookout) with an amazing view of Laguna de Apoyo, Granada, Lago Nicaragua and the cloud-topped volcano Masaya. The lookout also has a pool but the entrance fee is 20 cordobas, which is less than a dollar but since we make 35 cordobas a day ($1.50) no one wanted to pay that. So we went to a second lookout that only locals know about and it was just as gorgeous... and free. It even had stone benches to rest on and just enjoy the view. A bunch of us went to a little restaurant nearby (grass roof canopy, no walls, kind of like a sukkah) and had some Nicaraguan beer.
The food was kind of expensive- 100 cords for chicken soup! ($5.. haha, how quickly our monetary scales adjust!) The sun was brutal as we walked back and I lagged behind my companions           and found myself walking alone down a mostly deserted tree lined road to San Juan de Oriente. It was the perfect time for a little solo cry. I'd been feeling pretty melancholy and just lonely all day, especially with the group of volunteers. So I walked and sweated and cried, which actually worked out perfectly because the tears and sweat just all blended together on my face.
When I made it across the careterra (highway) and into the entrance of San Juan, the three other trainees in my group were standing out front of one the pottery shops. Allison was crying, but for a different reason- she'd accidentally broken a ceramic item in the shop. It was one of the tiendas that catered to tourists along the main road by the entrance to town. The shop owner wanted 500 cords ($25!).That was ridiculous and she didn’t have it on her. She had already tried explaining to him that we were volunteers here, we lived in the community, we weren’t tourists… she told him her host family’s name and asked to go home to get some money but I guess they’d seen too many gringos passing through and didn’t trust her.
By the time I came along, she was pretty upset and the others were just standing around, helpless, trying to console her. They were also convinced the ugly thing had already been broken because of how it cleanly split apart from her just tapping it. The theory was that they strategically placed it for unsuspected tourists to get suckers into parting with their American money. (I’ve never been back to the shop to see if there was another ugly ceramic mule in that spot to prove the theory.)
Miraculously, I had $20 bill on me, so I paid for the broken donkey (it really wasn’t worth that, but I was really not myself that afternoon so wasn’t up to haggling.) She paid me when we got back home and I swore to myself that if I was ever in a similar situation, I would either haggle them down… or just leave. There’s not that many police here to begin with and the only two I’ve ever seen in our town know us and know why we’re here.
On a random note, as I continued on my way home, still feeling pretty lonely and sorry for myself, a guy sitting in front of one of the small concrete houses here called out, “Where are you from?” When I replied “America”, he responded “Duh, where in?” He was dressed like most people here imagine an American- khakis, polo, loafers, thick gold watch. Turns out he was from California, married a Nicaraguan and they were building a house nearby. He asked me a bunch of questions about serving in the Peace Corps and couldn’t seem to wrap his mind around anyone wanting to live in a third world country and donate their time there. And for two whole years? Well we did find out one thing we had in common- we both loved oatmeal. Apparently on this last trip, he brought a huge bag of real whole oats with him (the “avena” here is different, its more like instant; it’s ground real fine and Nicaraguans DRINK it- COLD!) Anyway, this kind man came by my house with his wife and dropped off all the oatmeal he’d brought. I guess he figured I needed it more than him right now.
Usually when I want an afternoon snack, I just threw sticks at the mango trees and sweet, ripe fruit rains down. Oh and later in the house, there was an insect the size of a freaking hummingbird. I thought it was a bat! Turns out it was just one of the Nica moths.
Well now with the Tormenta going full blast, there’s no need to throw sticks; the mangos are falling like bombs on the roof every few minutes.
And something huge just smacked my head- the supersize moth trying to get the hell out.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My First Shabbat

When I got home from a day of charlas, my host mom told me the water came! Excited, I decided to try out the shower in my “closet”.. I removed the suitcases and hung the shoes on a rack on the wall. I turned the water on and after a sputter of trapped air… glorious water sprayed forth! (It was still cold, but can’t have everything.) So the water initially came out a little brown but then cleared up so I figured it was just because no one uses the shower…  I got under the spray and started soaping up when I noticed a minute later that the soap on my skin was a brownish color. Now I know I wasn’t that dirty! So I cupped my hands under the showerhead sure enough the water was coming out brownish-yellow. Thank G-d it didn’t have a bad smell because for a moment there I thought water and sewer lines might have been crossed! After a few moments and the water color not changing…

I have resigned myself to bucket showers for the next two years. I am actually starting to look forward to them in the heat of the afternoon.

So finally, sunset came and I lit my shabbat candles on the kitchen table (2 little tea lights in the traveling pewter candle holder I got in Israel). Then I walked up the road to hang out with Luisa’s son and his wife (Miguel and Ingrid). They are such a funny couple, always telling jokes and laughing. I have to smile when I’m with them. And they have the cutest little baby boy- with the same happy disposition as his parents.
Ingrid’s mom is a seamstress in the next town over and she took my skirt (I ripped when I first got here) and sewed it, and absolutely would not let me pay for it.  The skirt was as good as new! In fact, it took us several minutes to find where the large rip had been. When I first ripped the ripped the skirt and saw how bad it was, I was kind of sad, since I’d just gotten in country and it was one of my favorites… someone told me not to worry because I was in the land of super-seamstresses. Now, I’m a believer.

So I talked and laughed with the young couple that evening, practicing my Spanish as a side benefit to the good company. Then the discussion turned a little serious- about the current government in Nicaragua and the US. For a long time there was a lot of bad blood here towards North Americans. I explained to him that   Sandinistas.. I explained that our president at the time (Regan) didn’t act with his government’s, or even all the citizens’, approval. 

It’s touchy at this time to talk politics. Peace Corps is a strictly a-political, a-religious government organization and as volunteers we are not permitted to express opinions on local politics. A big part of that has to do with our own security (not all  countries have elections as polite as ours *insert dry tone here*) and part of it has to do with our effectiveness in our communities. We can’t afford to be seen as siding with one particular party or group if we hope to gain the confidence of the community at large.

We are, however, allowed to express our opinions about our own government, for better or worse. After all, that’s our American constitutional right… right? Well, either way, that creates it’s own inherent problems; for example if our government is supporting (or not) the government in the host country, then your comments for or against can be seen as indirectly to the host country politics. Plus, there’s that looming goal of Peace Corps to spread cultural awareness of Americans to the host country citizens. Effectively, we are ambassadors for the US (though paid significantly less than the embassy one).  So yeah, bad mouthing the US would probably not be a bright idea... though I’m all for expressing a dissenting opinion J

Anyway, Miguel knew about Regan and that not all American’s agreed with him sending troops here to interfere with their civil war in support of the dictator Somoza. Socialism, communism, capitalism- Like most politicians, he just wanted what was best for trade, it had nothing to do with the people here. 

Then Miguel asked me my opinion on President Obama and the current administration (which I have heard does not support the government in power here).  Overall, I love my county and support my government… well, sometimes. I asked who he supports in the coming elections (most people have strong opinions either way here, like in the US). He surprised me by saying he just wants what’s best for his country

On that, we are in agreement. 

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

The Birthplace of Sandino

Lunch today was a real treat- “Bajo”.  It’s a traditional Nica dish with pieces of meat, platano bananos, yucca and lots of other yummy vegetables and spices, all cooked together in large banana leaves inside a HUGE pot. It’s cooked for a long time over an open flame, so everything is all tender and has soaked up the juices and spices. I believe it is my favorite Nica food.
We had a medical charla in Niquinohomo. It’s a small town about 6 miles from our own training town. The four of us met up at the empalme (traffic circle?) to catch a bus.
Our transportation was basically a rusty old school bus (still had the manufacturer’s plate from the factory in Buena Vista, Virginia 1978).  It was colorfully painted on the outside, with ridiculously short seats (or maybe I'm not 8 anymore?) and bars on the side for people to hang onto when they can't fit another person inside. There’s also also bars attached to the ceiling  for people to hold on to while they stand in the skinny little aisle, when all the seats are filled. It's cramped, rickety and jarring at times, and there's no A/C.  Oh, there's also a luggage rack on top (overflow passengers can ride up there too and at least there's a breeze and view).
I now know where old schools buses go to die.
Interesting fact- Niquinohomo is the birthplace of Sandino, who grew up to lead the “Sandinista rebellion”, eventually founding the government that rules the country to this day. I think they made his family home into the library.
We got to see the other volunteers after a week of separation. We lined up for more shots, rabies this time and to receive a weekly stipend ( 35 cordobas a day, about $1.50) In contrast, when we were at orientation in DC, we got $144 per diem a day. One day of per diem from DC is going to last me all year as play money in Nicaragua. (Per family, water costs about $1 a month and electricity much more at $20 a month)
While waiting for shots, one volunteer (who has Indian heritage and is Hindu) asked me if I was an orthodox Jew. I had no idea to answer that, so I settled for the simplest one, “no.”
After all the injection fun, we had our medical session : Diarrhea, fun diseases.. and found that some volunteers are more than 12 hours from the medical office in Managua. Guess it’s a good thing us Environment volunteers aren’t getting placed on the Caribbean coast. But then we do have that handy, fully stocked PC medical kit! (Which the doctors take every opportunity to remind us about; especially the hydration packets.)
One doctor told us how she still remembers not long ago, patients dying quite frequently in front of her. Their lack of resources and basic medical supplies and even training really put the doctors and nurses in a helpless position. She told us about an infant brought in, so severely dehydrated that it was minutes from death (when she pinched the skin lightly, it stayed puckered and white instead of re-inflating). They hand dribbled salt water into its mouth and, amazingly, the baby survived. I think this was meant to show us how important the hydrationg packets are- especially if we can’t get to medical attention or they can’t get to us, sometimes for MANY hours. And apparently bugs, worms, infections, ect. can really hit you hard in service.
Afte the charla, the volunteers went across the way to have some beers. I joined in for a bit, but didn’t stay long because it was a Friday afternoon and I wanted to get home to light Shabbat candles. I took a mototaxi home, it was just easier and the buses still scare me- but man, Maria would be SO mad.
On the way home, I saw a dog poop in the street and then eat it right away. EWWW... which reminds me: next medical charla should cover dietary supplements.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Address Here

Directions work differently here. The streets don’t have names and the houses don’t have numbers. How then, you ask, will I be able to send all those wonderful letters and care packages to you while you’re serving there? Well, during training, our mail gets routed to the Peace Corps post office box in the capital. That’s the most secure method. People don’t really get mail delivered to their houses anyway (they’re aren’t mailboxes… or mailmen), they pick it up at the post office. That’s understandable and here’s why:
My address is, more or less : from the Mayor’s office, one block west, three blocks south, just past the stone wall.
And so, I’m happy that we have the Apartado Postal address to give folks back home.
There is no “1314 Bird Lane” here (sorry if that’s your actual address). Makes it hard to google map to a new home or business. But then, most people here don’t have internet, or computers, so the point is moot. Actually, most people have lived in their communities for many years, if not their whole lives, so if they don’t know where “three blocks south of the mayor’s office is”… well, they can just ask someone else in town, who’s probably lived here there whole life.
When you think about, really the only people who suffer are the tourists.
On a different note, there were two funerals today. The cemetery is about two blocks south from the main road (and now you know it’s address too!) . A whole parade of people followed several men carrying the black casket with silver crosses on their shoulders. There was even a small band, consisting people playing guitars and other instruments. It was actually quite festive, or as festive as you can get while escorting a coffin to the local cemetery. I find the cultural difference fascinating and I think funerals should be done this way (except the truly tragic ones, like children). Think about it, the family carrying the loved one personally on their shoulders, followed by others (preferably more family?) playing lively music and generally celebrating a life well lived.
Or maybe I just really like the sound of Spanish guitars.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

La Escuela

Today we went up to the school (escuela) to meet our co-teachers. Each of us will work with one teacher during training, to give a minimum of three classes.
The school is on a hill across from the large catholic church; I think it’s the highest point in town and you can see the volcano by Lake Apoyo from the school yard. We have to walk about a couple steeply inclined hills to get to the school gate, and then up a set of stone steps. The school is surrounded by an iron bar fence (the bars end in spikes) and ringing that fence are stone steps, I think they act as bleachers for events in front of the school.
Like most schools here, is one story, with concrete walls and a zinc metal roof. It has no A/C or running water but it does have electricity (usually) and what I’ve come to think of as “Nica windows”- long thin slots of glass that open and close on the same hinge. The fading paint is a bright blue and white- again, like many schools here.  The layout is more or less like a strip mall in a square shape, with rows of classrooms facing an open courtyard area. There is also a large open area with just a concrete floor and a really high metal roof. It reminds me of a hangar bay or oversize outdoor carport, but I think it’s their auditorium. Beside that is a decent size open field for the kids to play in- on one side of the field is the iron bar fence following a steep drop of those stone bleachers to the street. On the other side is a fairly steep hillside that goes down to a river (a ravine?). We’re planning on making the school gardens on the ravine side of the field. The challenge will be making it close enough to the tree line that the kids (and men) playing soccer don’t destroy and yet not so far in that we risk tumbling to our deaths (kidding). A little south of the planned garden site, closer to the classrooms, the hillside is a large burnt pile – that’s where the school burns its trash.
So we walked up to the school right after lunch and met the directora (principle) and waited in her office for the afternoon teachers to join us. All the kids came spilling out of the classes, I guess for recess, and four Nicaragua teachers came in to sit facing us, four nervous volunteers. We all introduced ourselves; there were two young teachers, one middle-aged and one older woman. We were asked to select grades at random (3rd-5th) and I picked one of the fifth. I got the oldest teacher – yaay! I’m all for experience. And she has a really kind face.  She smiled and kissed my cheek, a great start. The other volunteers’ teachers didn’t seem as affectionate, but it could be because they were younger and more nervous. So we decide on a schedule; our first day of observation and our class schedule after that. My classes will be Thursdays at 2pm, which gives us time each week to plan the class and practice it with each other in our little class of volunteers.
In the afternoon, Luisa’s four grandsons were in the house and I got stuck impromptu babysitting. They’re good kids, full of energy, ages ranging from 5 -13. They got a little rough with each other and man, is it hard to discipline in another language. So as a distraction from playing “who can beat who up better?”, I asked them to sing the Nicaraguan national anthem (nigno nacional).  What a pleasant surprise! They all promptly shot to their feet, stood at attention and belted out the Spanish song at the top of their lungs.
Then they asked me to sing the American national anthem. Ah, here was my chance to do that cultural exchange Peace Corps encourages!  So of course, I totally blanked out and with them all watching expectantly… I sang the first patriotic song that came into my head. America the Beautiful. Eh, close enough- they all listened raptly and clapped enthusiastically at the end.  Almost right after, I remembered the actually anthem (Oh, say can you see?) but the moment had passed.
Sorry, forefathers. And also, to my first grade teacher.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Around Town

As I mentioned before, we do applied Spanish in the afternoons, which usually means walking around and meeting people in community. Since we live in an artisan town, this is pretty awesome. Like tourist shopping.
We’ve been to the shop of the language teacher’s family and a couple other families in town. All selling ceramics for a fraction of the cost in the US – no tourist shops for us “locals”!  We walked to the public clinic, a small, unobtrusive building donated by the grand duke of Luxemborg. Across the street we went to the small house of a family that makes ceramics. While the woman showed us her products, her teenage son was studying in a corner. She showed us her Orno (big brick oven, every seems to have one here)  where they fire the pottery and the attached work space with pottery wheel and two men hand painting pieces . She explained how the process is done and showed the clay (called barro, it’s made locally as well) and the outer layer, a darker more liquid clay that comes from the north of the country.
We also went by John’s house because his family owns a panaderia. They get up at 3am (yes, that’s AM) to make bread by hand, from scratch, and bake it in the huge outdoor brick oven (similar to the artesan orno). Fresh, soft, hot and it tastes great- for only 2 cordobas (9 cents!). I have a new favorite breakfast food.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

La Tormenta

So last night I was woken up out of a dead sleep, which is no small feat since I’m a pretty heavy sleeper. I wasn’t sure what exactly woke me until I heard it again- an explosion. Either someone was dropping bombs and another war was starting here, or a huge, inconsiderate giant was stepping on the house.
I was half asleep still (like I said, heavy sleeper), so I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t having a dream/nightmare. And I didn’t hear people running around outside, or inside, I could only assume my initial guesses were wrong.
So I layed in my little bed, under my mosquito net, try to fall back asleep as the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard in my life boomed every ten seconds. It literally shook the walls; the metal roof only magnified the sound. Worse, a torrential rain (yes, torrential) was falling so thick and hard that it drowned out all other sound. I can only equate it to a jet flying low overhead; I grew up next to an airbase, I’ve had many times in my life when I was talking only to be completely drowned out by an aircraft flying too close to the house. If you haven’t had the experience, the only other thing even close to this noise level is a very gusty wind, like on the beach in winter. Or if you’ve ever lived through a tornado. On top of all the noise, the lightning was so strong and so frequent, it looked like a giant strobe light outside and I could even see it through my eyelids. I honestly don’t remember being scared during a thunderstorm, possibly when I was a very young child. I think I managed to finally fall asleep an hour or two later, but the storm/apocalypse was still going strong. I tried putting a pillow over my head, which blocked out the constant flashing light, but not the noise. It was that loud.  I truly feared the roof was going to cave in (well it is just a corrugated metal sheet on wood beams).
The next morning I asked my host mom about what happened during the night. She told me it’s called La Tormenta… I don’t think it’s a term that needs translation.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Avena !

Oh my head! My stomach! I know I’m in the Peace Corps now ... time to turn to my trusty medical kit. Thankfully my host mom has had 4 volunteers before me, she’s very helpful.
Having the dreaded stomach issues led to one pleasant discovery- there’s oatmeal in Nicaragua! It’s called avena… and another great find- mi mama loves it! She has no problem with me eating it for dinner, which I prefer when I’m having stomach problems. Even when I’m not, oatmeal is really a great, low calorie food that helps regulate your digestive system, manages cholesterol and is bland enough to not cause acid reflux. Anyway, eating substituting oatmeal for all my meals helped clear up the stomach problem pretty quickly (not completely).
Speaking of food… I want to feed bread to the starving dogs. The dogs that are walking around with every bone in their skeleton showing through their thin skin.  I’d rather spend my little money on them than on ice cream for myself, which is what are little extra spending money is supposed to go to… mi mama and her daughter-in-law told me not to though, that I’d have problems, people would think I killed a dog if he died after eating my food gift. Even though logically, a severely starved dog most likely dies of… starvation. I couldn’t let it go, so she showed me how to do it on the DL. This basically involves eating the bread or pretending to, and covertly dropping pieces of it as I walk by the animal.
On the way to class one day, we passed a woman carrying a large woven basket on her head. I asked her what was in it and she said bread. Ah, perfect! She took it off and showed me the delicious, handmade bread.. I only wanted pan simple (plain bread) to give to the dogs. It was 3 cordobas each, which is like 12 cents I think, so I bought three. I found out later that was a little overpriced. At least some of the dogs got a nice treat that day.
Oh, Allison told me her host father sells his pottery to stores in the US- like Target and Peir 1! Imagine that- when the stuff says handmade, it really is. I always had doubts, it just looked to perfect to not be mass manufactured. Well in those stores, it costs 100s of dollars, and here I  can get it for a few dollars. That’s fortunate for me but sadly just an example of how local artisans get cheated by big companies and middle men.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Parades and Pottery

Nicaraguan Independence Day takes place in the middle of September Even though it’s still a couple weeks away, the local high school band has started daily practice for the upcoming celebration. We essentially had front row seats since our classroom is on the main street and the band passed at least once a day practicing. Really you can hear the band almost anywhere in town. The music is actually pretty lively, but most of the sea of blue and white uniformed students just march alongside the smaller group comprising the band.
We spend most of our afternoons walking around town – for the applied Spanish segment of class. It’s a pretty tiny town and Maria seems to know everyone, having lived here her whole life. The people are friendly and there are tons of little artisan shops selling freshly painted pottery. The main entrance is packed on both sides of the streets with rows of little stores overflowing with every trinket imaginable. They’re mostly handmaid things but all overpriced (comparatively) since they cater to tourists. It’s strange to go up to that area by the town entrance and see tourists, just Americans or Europeans enjoying a cheap vac-ay down south  and then realize that I’m living here, in a house with a local family, further into the depths of the town.
Maria doesn’t take us to that part of the pueblo; the object is to get to know the locals, introduce us as members of the community, and practice our Spanish. One shop we visited belonged to Maria’s family and she told us they make all the ceramics there.  There was one beautiful vase, intricately hand painted… it cost 70 cordobas, which is the equivalent of $4 ! It would be at least $70 in the US; hand made, hand painted pottery. I have to swallow my inner thrift store shop-aholic… and remind myself that $4 is still more than I make in a day here.
Randomly, on the first day of class, the local policia visited us, I guess just to make introductions and warns us about the peligros (dangers) and banditos (bad guys).
I’ve visited the other trainees house: Ellie has a light in her bathroom (I’m jealous). Allison had an actual indoor bathroom, with plumbing- toilet, sink, shower (I’m VERY jealous). Poor John- his house is the most run down and it’s in the hottest part of town, his bedroom is so small that his mosquito net covers the whole area and he has no windows. Not that any of our rooms are that big, but I need a window or I’ll go crazy. (eventhough I can’t really keep it open since it’s just a wooden shutter and a big gapping whole in the wall would be an invitation for all sorts of unwanted critter-visitors. More so that the 1 foot gap between the walls and ceiling.)  But it’s nice to have the option and actually I’m the only one of us four who has a window in the bedroom, so I’m counting my blessings.
Among those blessings being living in a house surrounded by towering mango trees, so it’s cooler and living with an older woman with grown children; that combined with being farther from the center of town leads to some quiet living. Although it would be nice to have little host siblings- Ellie’s litte hermanos are so sweet and fun-loving, they always run up and hug me and chatter happily in Spanish.
It was nice this first week to sympathize with fellow volunteers. It's hard on us all, with  the different food, the language barrier, everything.  As Allison put it, “it's awkward enough being in someone's house you don't know, but now I can't even talk to them!” She told me she  cried the first night and I know the others are also having problems (no sickness yet, thank G-d). I haven't cried yet… scratch that, I cried a little during my cold bucket shower but they were tears of pain. We're all wandering what we're doing here.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Spanish Class

Luisa walked me to my first language class; it was in the home of another volunteer’s host family. We had to walk up a BIG hill and I was breathing hard. It’s going to be good exercise every day. We met two of her grandsons on the way, they were very friendly. Most of Luisa’s six kids live on the same road as her, with their families.
Class is in a small front room of a house on the “main street”. There are four rocking chairs and walls painted bright pink. We use a small, portable white board and the door stays open to the street, which is great for air circulation but hard on our concentration.  Children and dogs wander by, one dog was so skinny every bone in his body was showing, which was very hard for me to see. It started to rain, as it does every day, or so I heard.  I sat in the rocking chair, learning Spanish and listening to the quiet rain… it was a great first day.
Our language facilitator, Maria, admittedly speaks almost no English which makes class harder but I think will be better for us in the long run.
We visited the pulperia (tiny corner store); the town is too small for a supermarket, to practice some our Spanish. During training, we get 35 cordobas a day, which is about $1.50; not quite enough for shopping sprees. But then the snacks in the pulperia cost on average 20 cents, so I’ll survive. After we pass training, I think we get 4500 cordobas a month, out of which we have to pay rent for a room with a family (that includes meals and clothes washing).
Luisa was waiting for me after class (Maria talked to her privately about there being no lock on my bedroom door, which is required by PC policy. I was really nervous Luisa would be upset but everything seemed ok). Allison walked back with us, she lived farther up the same dirt road my house is on. She saw my house and then we went to her house and sat outside eating fresh mangos. It’s nice to have someone nearby who speaks English, even if we don’t really know each other.
Luisa was going to show me how to make mango juice but my stomach was still upset, so she gave me some bread instead.  She invited me to the home of her pastor for a cumpleanos (birthday) celebration of a member of her church. Walking there at night was a little hard at first, as there’s not light outside so it was pitch black. Luisa assured me there were no snakes but I didn’t know how to ask about other wild animals. Her nuera (daughter-in-law) and grandson, Carlos Miguel, went with us. Everyone sat in a long room with pink walls, in plastic chairs on either side. Evangelistas don’t dance or drink alcohol, so it was kind of quiet and they didn’t really stand up and mingle. We were served little plates with a corn tortilla, chicken leg, and ensalada, which we put in our laps and ate with our hands. (I love eating with my hands! I think I fit right in..)
Later we were given a small plate of rice with chicken and what I think was pork. I stared at the plate for a long time, not wanting to offend anyone before my host mother told me to just pick out the pork. Not ideal but… I only ate half the rice and wasn’t sure what they did with leftovers.  Luisa took my plate, poured my rice on top of hers and covered it with my plate, taking it home to her daughter later. Very practical and just another reminded of how much food we waste in the US.
After we got home, Luisa helped me put up my mosquito net, which was quite an ordeal. Sitting inside it, I felt like I was in a large green bag. However, it’s necessary to keep the mosquitoes off at night, as well as other creepy-crawlies. The house is constructed in a way that allows the outdoor elements inside easily; the walls don’t meet the ceiling/roof which is corrugated metal that sits on top of a wood frame that then rest on top of the concrete walls. So there’s about a six-inch gap between the walls and the ceiling. This is the same for the exterior and interior walls, so you a light in one room goes into another and you can hear every sound in the house. All in all, it’s a typical Nica house, nicer than most.
At night, tiny iguanas crawl scurry across the wall, they’re called escorpios (yeah that scared me at first). There are also other large bugs, none of which I know the names.
After taking a shower (which is a whole other element of Peace Corps fun I’ll discuss later), I settled into bed for my first night here. As I lay under my big green net and listened to the loud symphony of crickets, I had a mild panic attack. I felt alone and scared and wandered what the hell I was doing way out here.  I told myself other volunteers felt the same way, PC will take care of me, Luisa understands and I’ll be fine. I went to sleep and woke up to the sun and fresh air and I was ok.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Afternoon Delight

Ah, the famed bucket showers. On the way to our training sites, a volunteer beside me on the bus made a joke: A pessimist looks at a glass half-empty, an optimist looks at it half-full; a Peace Corps volunteer sees it and says “I can take a bath with that!”
We all laughed but I didn’t realize how true that would be. Other volunteers have had their breakdowns during training over the stress.  I half-jokingly told Allison “the only time I’ve cried in training is when I have to take a shower”. It’s not entirely true, generally I just curse and pray alternately.
I get a kick out of the fact that I am essentially showering in my closet. It’s a small separate room with concrete walls with a shower nozzle and knob. My showers hang on a rank on one wall and my bag of dirty clothes hangs on another. My suitcases use to take up the rest of the space but I moved them to the room with the toilet (there’s no light in either and no water to use the toilet).
So basically here’s the process. I go outside and find a useable bucket (basically those 10 gallon buckets you can buy paint or plaster in). I walked to the big blank tanque and fill it with water then lug it to the house and into my closet/shower. Then I use a smaller bucket to scoop the water out and dump over my head. Yeah, it’s pretty complicated. Going on a suggestion from another trainee, I lean forward and dump the water on my head first. Apparently, it helps your body acclimate to the temperature change faster. And I think every PCV agrees that the moment when the cold water first touches your back is the worst part of the whole activity.  Anyway, Nicaraguans shower at least once a day, but I’ve always been sensitive to temperature and honestly; this is torture. I’m working on it.
Ok, so here’s an extra credit activity:
Next time you go to take a shower, take a container (bucket, tupperware, pot) and fill it with cold water from the tap. Then get in the shower and take a cup or bowl from the kitchen to use to dump the water on you. Keep emptying the cup over your head until the bucket/pot is empty… or until you cry uncle.
Really it’s not that bad, and it’ll be over before you know. And after you finish, you can turn on the clean, hot running water that’s available every day from your shower. And don’t forget to say a quick prayer of thanks to G-d.
Reading about my Peace Corps adventure is one thing, but doing this activity will be like you’re really here. Any time you meet a returned volunteer, or someone from an undeveloped country, you could commiserate and say in all honesty “I know exactly how it is”.
So you have the instructions, go forth fearless readers and take that first cold step into a brave new world. You might lose a few degrees of body temperature but you’ll gain priceless knowledge of the Peace Corps experience.
Oh, and if you actually do this please leave me a comment telling me how it was :)

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

El Domingo

The families we are placed with are better off than average. Luisa has electricity, a desktop computer (no internet), a house phone, a television and her daughter has a laptop. However, we only have water three days a week, for about 6 hours in the evening. There is a sink with a tap and even a bathroom inside with a toilet and shower. But there isn’t running water by counter, so they wash dishes in the sink with water from a bucket filled outside. There’s a space lined with tile in the corner of the L-shaped counter that is about four feet deep and filled with water. There’s also a huge black water tank outside and two big metal drums- one by the lavandera and another by the inordoro. The lavandera is the big stone table where Luisa washes the clothes and the inordoro is basically an outhouse.
And yep, there’s no A/C. Thank goodness it’s “winter”, though during the day the sun is brutal. And the metal roof just heat up until being inside the house is like sitting in an oven.
Later, mi mama washed some of my clothes, which was no easy task. I stood in awe watching this little brown woman working my t-shirt against the grooved stone surface. She rubbed a round brick of soap on the fabric and then scooped some water out of the “pila” (a sunken space filled with water). Then she commenced to work the clothing against the stone with strong, sure strokes that spoke of years of experience.  She didn’t pause from her work as she asked me “washing clothes is easier in the United States, no?”  As I watched her bent over the stone, her arm muscles straining as she vigorously scrubbed, I was at a loss for an appropriate response. The answer was a definite “yes” but I hated to emphasize the already obvious economic disparity between our lives.
Afterwards,  I hung the clothes up on thin wire lines strung between trees farther from house, while chickens ran underfoot (not hers, someone stole hers). I got to try at the back-breaking lavandero and worked up a sweat as I washed my underwear. While hanging that up, there was a hard thud nearby, then another.  I saw mangos on the ground from the trees 20 feet in the air;  it makes me scared to walk outside.  I asked Luisa if she ever ate them and she gave me a response equivalent to “duh, all the time” (that’s a paraphrase).  She went out among the fruit trees by the house and gather some, which then we washed  from the tank outside and ate with our hands. Standing outside eating fresh mangos, surrounded by tropical trees and plants as we took a break from hand-washing clothes; I think this is when it really sunk in where I was.  I’m in Nicaragua.
Then it started to rain (surprise) and we had to run out and hang the clothes on the porch. It rained long and hard for hours. I tried my hand at washing dishes without running water- not easy feat but oddly soothing- and took a nap. Sure why not, I am in Nicaragua.
After a dinner of cooked verduras (like squash or cucumber) and tostones (fried plantanos bananas with salty white cheese),  I was sitting in the living room, watching their little TV with Alma, when there was a hard boom. She didn’t even blink, telling me it was the mangos hitting the roof. Towering trees dropping hard baseball-size fruit on a metal surface over our heads- well, you can image the sound.  A little later a hard thud next to me on the couch- a black bug the size of a freaking egg had dropped beside me.  I had just swallowed my scream when it took off in flight around the room. Luisa assured me it wasn’t dangerous (el conchico) before non-chalantly picking the winged beast up and putting it out the window. It was inside flying around again in 5 minutes. Oh yeah, I’m definitely in Nicaragua.
Side Note: No one speaks English here and I’ve been talking Spanish for 2 days. I think I’m doing ok, I’ve been able to tell jokes, unless they’re laughing at my mangling of the language. Luisa and Alma say my Spanish is better than the last volunteers but it might be because I talk more. Talking in Spanish is really important to becoming fluent. Well, anyone who knows me, knows I’ve never been afraid of talking…

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government or the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cultural Differences

I lit Shabbat candles in the girl’s dorm on Friday evening. Most of the other volunteers understood what I did and I didn’t encounter any questions except “when are you lighting the candles?” I and another volunteer, Rahul , were pulled aside for private discussions regarding our respective religions (he being Hindu and myself Jewish). We had both specified dietary restrictions and in a mostly Catholic country,  people’s sphere of world religions are limited to Christian denominations. The term “Evangelistas” seems to encompass everyone who isn’t catholic.
So I have some concerns about cultural differences living here. One of the main causes of stress during service is supposed to be integrating into a new culture. Some of the differences I’m worried about are:
The “machismo” attitude… men are better, women shouldn’t do things outside the house, it’s typical and acceptable (not considered offensive) to make catcalls and whistles, ect to women walking down the street. In many homes there is a serving order at meal time: the husband/father, then male children, then young women and last, the mother.
After using the bathroom, toilet paper is thrown in TRASH, in a covered trash can beside the toilet. I don’t need to go into more explanation about the problem with sanitation and smell. Apparently, the sewer system here can’t handle the extra solid waste of paper, so even in fancy restaurants in capital city,  you can’t flush your dirty toilet paper.
There doesn’t seem to be hot water anywhere in the country and man do I hate the sensation of having cold water dumped on me!
The whole volume level here is higher- the music is loud, people talk loud and kids make noise (and there can be a lot of kids) and everyone watches their televisions with the volume on high. Houses tend to be small and maybe walls aren’t floor-ceiling, so the noise can be a really problem for a lot of volunteers. Lucky for me, I grew up in a cramped house with a lot of people and tons of noise. Besides, we definitely get our own room with a lock.
Possibly the hardest cultural adjustment for me will be the attitude towards animals. Because Nica is still a very poor and undeveloped country, food is scarce and the attitude towards animals in general is that they are just animals. Work animals on a farm will probably be treated better because they are necessary for livelihood.  However on the way to my town, we passed a lot of really skinny dogs and skinny horses and cows. I’m talking about ribs showing.  We even saw a man walking across the street dragging a dead dog by a rope.  This is going to be hard for me.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government of the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.

Training Town

On Saturday, all the volunteers were piled into the same white van, with Don Douglas (Do-lus) as our intrepid driver. I can’t give the name of the town because the government has a ton of security restrictions. My group was the first to be dropped off, I think because we are the furthest away from Managua. It’s still only a little more than an hour away, but it didn’t take long for the scenery to change as we left the city. The lush greenery and open spaces increased, with the mountains in the distance getting closer. There were more horses and oxen or cows on the side of the road and horse-drawn carriages mixed in with automotive traffic. (Almost all cars in Nicaragua are manual/stick, according to Douglas). There was a big truck pulled off to the side of the road and the drivers were sleeping underneath in hammocks. Driving through the countryside of Nicaragua, with soft Spanish music playing on the radio, I really got hit for the second time that I was in Latin America.
I was the second volunteer to be dropped off. We turned down a road paved with the tiles common on the streets here. A little ways down the tree-lined road, we stopped at a house recessed back with a long walkway. An older woman a big dog came out (one of four). Two of the guy volunteers got my suitcases out of the crowded van, I said goodbye and went to meet my host momma. She smiled and we kissed on the cheek (Nicaraguan greeting). Maria (my language facilitator) and Don Douglas went into the home with me and discussed some stuff with Luisa in Spanish.
There is a big front yard with a lot of tropical plants (including mango trees) and a porch with four beautiful, carved wooden rocking chairs. Luisa’s daughter, Alma , was studying in the living room. Her father, who is an artisan, was working in the studio that is off their patio. The ceiling is high with a steeple and its corrugated metal, maybe tin. The walls are painted very colorfully, the living room is yellow and the kitchen is bright green- Latin Americans love bright colors. The kitchen is nice size with a wooden table and chairs and a stove, sink and small refrigerator. It opens into a huge back yard, where there is a bathroom, shower and place to wash clothes.  My room is small and off the kitchen. There is a small window, with wooden shutters but no glass, which is common.  There is a small wooden chair, a wooden bookshelf for clothes and small wooden table by a single-size bed.  There is a small shower room and toilet room inside, but neither is usable as there is not running water. I’m going to use them for storage- there’s a shoe rack in the shower room already. There aren’t any knobs on the doors; I pull on a nail to open the shower/storage room door.
I lay down for a little bit and took a nap; the heat here makes me tired a lot.  From my bed, I can look through the small window and the green plants right outside are very calming. I was awakened an hour later by the crowing of a rooster outside my window and my host mother calling my name (Li-yon). She made chicken and rice and ensalada for almuerzo (lunch).  It was simple but good and filling. We drank fresh squeezed mango juice, yum!  So far the “double dragon” has not visited me (see Managua blog entry) and I am trying my best to keep it away.  I am trying to eat slowly and not a lot; Luisa asked me what kind of serving size I prefer. Here it is not really polite to leave food on the plate, I think it’s insulting to the mom and also because of the scarcity of food.
My stomach has been feeling kind of funny and making a lot of weird noises- I told Luisa “mi estomago esta cantando” (my stomach is singing) and then went on to elaborate that it was not good singing. She lectured me on the importance of taking my malaria pills and washing my hands (which is kind of difficult because there is no running water in the house; thank G-d for antibacterial).  I know also I need to drink water, which is easier because PC requires the family to have a Pura Water 20 gallon jug dispenser for us. So I don’t have to drink the water from the tanque, now I just have to remember to drink often. My Nica mom has hosted four other volunteers before me so that makes a lot of things easier. Also, she’s Evangelista  and is cool with me being  Jewish (she seemed to know what a  Judeo was). She even showed me a small wooden shelf in my room where I could put my Shabbat candle holder.

The contents of this website/blog do not reflect any position of the United States government of the Peace Corps. All names have been changed.