Thursday, December 30, 2010

alternative career options

(...I have a month and a half of written & unposted blog posts to catch up on. Best get cracking!)

Peace Corps, they say, teaches you to be flexible. Always. Be flexible when things come up last minute and you have to catch the bus RIGHT NOW to the city to meet with someone Very Important. Be flexible when that Very Important Person has other Important things to do all day and so you’re left kicking your heels waiting instead of doing all the things you had planned. Be flexible when you organize meetings and no one shows up. Be flexible when fifteen more people than planned show up and you don’t have food for them all. Be flexible especially when you’re traveling, for when the buses don’t come or leave early or sit and wait for three hours because the driver refuses to leave until all the seats are full. Be flexible when there are approximately 2893492326 people on the bus you’re trying to get on, and 953 more people try to board in front of you... and all of them are in your way when you're trying to get off Be flexible when you’re standing on that same bus clutching onto whatever you can reach to stay upright in your six square inches of space while the cobrador squeezes by you collecting fares and the bus tears around corners as it climbs into the mountains.

Be flexible enough to stop and breathe when the rain is coming as the sun sets and brings a double rainbow with it. Be flexible enough to actually enjoy the company of nine little kids all wanting to hang out with you and look at all your things. Be flexible enough to know when you can’t be flexible at all.

Also, I am learning, be flexible in terms of your future career! Who says what you have planned is actually your true vocation? In the interests of exploring all possible options, I have been testing out possibilities in my free time. I would make a terrible washerwoman (I always get sand in all my pockets when I wash things in the river), but I’ve found a few other choices to consider:

I would make a passable manicurist...

...a middling sort of chef...

...a pretty decent poster-drawer (with some help)...

...and a hilarious dancer...

...But for the moment, at least, I guess cosmetology school and So You Think You Can Dance stardom can wait until after I’m finished being a volunteer.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


A happy belated Thanksgiving to all!

There is no possible way to not enjoy a holiday and be full of thanks when your view is this:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

i admit it

I am a terrible blogger. It is true. LE SADFACE.

In return I bring you pictures of the yard sale and medical brigade we had last weekend to raise money for building our community-based health center!

It was a bit of a madhouse (complete with cows and dogs and all manner of creatures wandering about), but we made some good money -- enough to buy 2 beds for the house! Awesome!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

matthew and some foodstuffs

Here I am stuck in the city while we are under CONSOLIDATION MODE for DREAD HURRICANE MATTHEW which is not so much a DREAD HURRICANE as spitting rain on us. That's life I suppose. Some days you get hurricanes.

Some days you get gifted food you've never heard of and have to cook!

(Yucca, jocote, culantro, and limones. I made boiled yucca (which as far as I can tell is about the only thing acceptable to do with yucca here) and pico de gallo. SO DELICIOUS.)

Some days you make pancakes! Or "panqueques", if you prefer. Which are also delicious wherever and however you make them.

bizzareness is bizzare

The surprises never end, and they’re never the surprises you expect. Just when you think you have hit the limit for confusion for the week or maybe the month, things like this happen:

HEALTH CENTER COMPUTER: *angry screen of blinking cursor DEATH*

HEALTH CENTER STAFF: Don’t do it, computer! Come back! Don’t go toward the light! We need you so we can fill out all of these forms about everything we do here!

COMPUTER: *refuses to even turn on*

FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER: Now what? We have to print more copies of this letter of commitment, and the only thing left is the ancient typewriter that attacks me every time I so much as look at it.

COUNTERPART: The alcaldía is the only place with a copier within 20km; you’ll have to go there.

(This is true. Also copies in town cost money, and the alcaldía (town office) is free. I was sold on the idea. I did not realize quite what a big deal copies are here, though.)

SECRETARY: *standing beneath a big sign that declares FOTOCOPIAS* Hello?

FNPCV: Our computer at the center died and we need copies of this letter. Can we copy it here?

SECRETARY: *looking extremely doubtful* Well...

FNPCV: Just ten or so? Please?

SECRETARY: You’ll have to talk to the alcalde.

FNPCV: The... mayor? Are you sure? All I want is...

SECRETARY: He’s that way. He’s in a meeting.

FNPCV: I... *secretary leaves* ...okay then?

ALCALDE: *is in a very important-looking meeting*

ASSISTANTS: *are looking bored in very important ways*

FNPCV: (to assistants) Look, all I want to do is copy this letter...

ASSISTANTS: You’ll have to talk to the alcalde. Go on! Just walk in!

*everyone stares, but no one stops talking*

FNPCV: Uh, hi? Sorry, I... just want to make some copies? Of this letter. For the health center?


FNPCV: ...Ten?

VICE-ALCALDEZA: *decisively* You’ll have to bring your own paper.

FNPCV: I have to... right. Okay. Yes. I can do that. Bring my own paper. Sure thing.

So I made the copies eventually, with further help from the assistant mayor, who apparently needed to speak directly to the secretary in charge of photocopies and give specific directions. I just stepped back politely and let the whole surreal thing happen until I had exactly ten (they counted) copies of the letters, which I will be bringing back to their office next week, when I actually do need to see the mayor so he can sign off on anything the local government promises our project.

I wonder where they’ll send me for that?

Friday, August 20, 2010

burn, baby, burn



1. Get elected to make coffee for everyone working because no one believes you can cook.
2. Arrange coffee, pitcher, pot of water, and stove to your liking.
3. Spend five unnecessary minutes trying to figure out how to turn the gas on.
4. Light match. Watch helplessly as it flies out of your hand and goes arcing end over end through the air toward the tank of gas.
5. Stomp out match as quickly as possible when it lands on the floor and breathe sigh of relief. Prepare to endure teasing about this for the rest of your two years of service.


1. Become totally fed up with the wasps living in the cardboard boxes in the room you work in. Decide to Take Action; enlist stung coworkers for help.
2. Cover all holes in the boxes and carry them outside. Carefully lift top falps until you locate the nests. Get someone else to remove the styrofoam with the hives and put it into another, disposable box.
3. Burn the box with the hives; carry original boxes back inside after cleaning them.
4. Realize too late th at when your coworker says, "Let's get rid of the nest in the corner of the ceiling," what he really means is: "Let's tie some paper onto the end of a stick, light it on fire, and burn the wasps out." Watch in horrified fascination, convinced the ceiling tiles will catch fire and figuring out which things to grab when they do.
5. Sweep up all the debris after nothing but the nest goes up in flames. Spend the rest of the afternoon ducking dive-bombin, pissed-off wasps.

also my knuckle is the size of an jocote

Bruised Confidence in Self-Sufficiency: Washing Double-Size Sheets

First, decide your sheets are dirty enough to wash. Then analyze your pila. Is there enough water? If not, return to step one and reconsider. If they really can´t stand another day without washing, consider going to the river. Try to remember where the path to the river is and whether the river might be too full to be safe.

Set up everything you need on your little bitty concrete slab: soap, bucket, smaller bucket for scooping water. There's no place to put your sheets, so wrap them around your neck like an overgrown scarf.

Wash your pillowcase first. It´ll take you about three seconds. Feel accomplished.

Begin your first sheet. Soak it in the bucket and start soaping it. Lose track of where the ends of it are and accidently let them drag in the mud. Re-soap them a little more viciously. Scrub the sheet as much as is p ossible with lots of fabric on a little space.

Try to rinse the soap out of the sheet. This functions much like Zeno´s Paradox: no m atter how much water you use, you will only ever be able to get half the soap out. Get frustrated. Decide to hang the sheet up to dry anyway. Accidentally drop it in the dirt when you reach for your clothespins. Resist the urge to stomp on it.

Re-wash the sheet, muttering at it and deciding not to care about washing all the soap out this time.

Consider your second sheet. Return to step one. Decide it really is dirty enough after all and wash it ver slowly, because at this point your hands are protesting the harsh soap, you have at least one bruised knuckle, and your arms are definitely not in shape enough to really have at all this wet, heavy fabric.

Give your other laundry waiting to be done a long, betrayed sort of look. Wish fruitlessly that it would do itself. Finally do half of it, and celebrate with a fresh guayava.

NOTE: Keep an eye out for sudden thunderstorms. Do not get so caught up in enjoying the sound rain makes on the roof that you forget you ever did laundry until everything is soaking wet and unsalvagable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dear Taxpayer


Please find attached my very first Official Peace Corps Report, which sounded exciting until I sat down to actually do it, when it turned out to be excruciatingly tedious. There was a lot of frowning and squinting at scribbly numbers, I am sorry to say, because I am an impatient adder at the best of times, and when the only pieces of scrap paper I seem to have anymore measure about an inch square maximum, things get much more squishy on the handwriting front, which is never a positive thing for my math skills.

Here are some of the things you have been paying for since January:

- a Spanish dictionary, two grammar books, and a baker’s dozen of technical manuals

- enough training in Spanish that I no longer sound like a three-year-old with a serious vocabulary problem, praise to all the powers that be

- two different kinds of parasite medicine to treat one very stubborn parasite

- a lovely water Filtron to store water when there isn´t any and to filter it when it´s brown

- the opportunity to try lots of different food, mostly made of corn: fresh (corn) tortillas, elotes (corn on the cob), güigüilas (“green” corn tortillas), tamales (corn mashed, wrapped in corn husks, and boiled), nacatamales (corn tamales with meat in the middle), rosquillas (made of corn and cheese), empanadas, enchiladas... (we are in the middle of the first corn harvest. I have been given six elotes and two tamales in the last two days. I may, just perhaps, be currently experiencing a corn overdose.)

- a little less than $200 a month, which provides me with a nice little room in a house with a lovely family and a completely useless softie of a guard dog; trips into the city for internet, groceries and the occasional ice cream; and my bi-weekly splurge on peanut butter

- learning how to wash my sheets over a tiny slab of concrete and not immediately drag them in the dirt

- roughly 29082731829 awkward moments (and counting) of sudden, painful cultural understanding or head-first collisions with the language barrier

- long days sitting in the health center, navel-gazing

- long days sitting in the health center, defining a vision, goals, and objectives for a desperately needed community-based birthing center in order to apply for Peace Corps project funding (courtesy of USAID)

- snacks for a youth group of young health promoters, training to educate their peers about STDs and teen pregnancy and a whole host of other health-related topics

- the opportunity to live in a different country and experience new and exciting types of confusion every day, a fact which mostly makes me a big hit in town because everyone loves a little schadenfreude

- capacity-building for local health workers, health classes in the secondary school, and all the paper, markers, and tape that entails

So thank you, taxpayer, for everything, because even on the navel-gazing days, even on the days I can’t help but stop and wonder if anything I do is actually making any kind of difference, I’m starting to love the work you make it possible for me to do.

Cheers; here’s to twenty more months of sun and rain and good days and bad days and indifferent days, all mixed together until everything balances out.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

the grab bag

The latest story I have heard about the mysterious closure of the cyber café in town is that the key has been lost. Not sure I believe it but whatever the case, there has been no internet in my town for over a month now. Really convenient for keeping in touch! Anyway the result is you get a weirdish blog entry today full of bits and pieces of things I’ve been collecting.

So there is a problem with learning a new language. Learning a language is frustrating in itself, but then once you think you’re starting to get the hang of it you discover that the same thing has five different names. The homemade popsicle-in-a-bag everyone eats here is a posicle, a bolsita, or, if you’re up here living practically in Honduras, a charamusca. The same goes with names: your friend will introduce himself as Ramón, but no one will call him that: he goes by Moncho or Monchito, which is apparently a common nickname. I guess it is the same way in English... the eternal battle between soda vs. pop vs. soda pop vs. coke vs. who knows what else rages on. (It’s soda, by the way.)

Then of course if you want to make life really exciting, throw in a twist like one of your new friends being mute. That always complicates things fabulously. And add on top of that the fact that everyone you hang out with speaks campo Spanish, which seems to mostly involve cutting the end syllables (especially “s”s) off of words. “¡Qué barbara!” does not actually mean “What a Barbara!” but the popular saying “Qué barbaridad!”, campo-style. “This is the way everyone here speaks,” my language tutor keeps telling me, giving me an example of some construction or other. “This is wrong. Do not say this. Here is what you should actually say when you talk to anyone, or everyone will think you are a total hick.”

You can mostly forget the vocab you learned in Spanish class back home, too. According to your textbook “helado” means ice cream... here “helado” means cold, and “eskimo” means ice cream, since that’s the most popular brand of ice cream here. It’s pretty good ice cream, actually; I particularly recommend the coffee flavor, which has actual bits of coffee bean in it.

Here is something I am becoming very weary of already: meetings set up and then indefinitely postponed at the last minute for unknown reasons. Here is something I am even more tired of: meetings no one but you shows up for. Charlas scheduled in classrooms on days no one has school. It’s almost enough to make me miss the solidity of filing and data entry... almost.

People here continue to be completely bemused by the fact that we grow corn in my home state and yet never make tortillas (what else would you do with corn?), and are amused when I say I want to learn how to make them. I keep trying to get people to teach me, but it is sort of like asking people to describe how they breathe. It just is. I think I am closing in on the process mostly by watching someone make them: it seems to involving boiling the corn with “cal” (I have yet to figure out what that is) until it is mushy and submissive, and then rubbing the skins off and grinding it up to make the masa (the dough, that is).

Anyway, that´s all I have for today... I hear we have another tropical storm headed our way, so I´m expecting another solid week or so of rain... at least we had a few weeks of sun to dry out beforehand!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

water water water

So there is an old joke I have heard a few times since entering Peace Corps, and it goes like this:

An optimist looks at a glass of water and says it’s half full.
A pessimist looks at the same glass of water and says it’s half empty.
A Peace Corps Volunteer looks at the glass and says, “Huh. That’s just about enough water to take a bath in.”

It’s funny until it starts feeling true.

Now, Nicaragua is not exactly a water-starved country if you look at it on a global scale; relatively speaking it’s far above many countries Volunteers are serving in. In fact here was the view of my back patio most of this week:

(That’s my landlady cooking breakfast for her family on the outdoor wood-fire stove, by the way.)

It is the rainy season, and this week it actually decided to rain, which means the days are disgustingly hot and humid, and then sometime between one and four in the afternoon the thunderstorms roll through intermittently until the next morning. But for most of the time I’ve been here it’s been fairly dry, which means our pila that collects rainwater from the roof has been empty and we’ve been depending entirely on the town well for our water. I am not entirely sure of the hours the well keeps – it appears to me to turn on more or less randomly, usually early in the morning but sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes every day, sometimes not. But somehow everyone figures out when it’s running and everyone brings their buckets to fill up.

For my house it isn’t so bad, since we’re right in the middle of town directly across the street from the well, but for people living on the ridge above it’s pretty tough, since water is, you know, sort of heavy and they’re hauling every bit of it they need for the day (or more) up a long, steep hill. Two weeks ago, the town tried digging a new well on the ridge, which was a big production and practically everyone turned out to look on and offer suggestions and a running commentary (which my landlady had a disgruntled conversation with me about, since the main activity here is watching everyone else walk around outside, and that afternoon there was no one for her to watch), but to no avail. They tried sinking a well in two different places, both of which were dry. I am living in one of the driest parts of a country too poor for most people to even dream about indoor plumbing, and that’s when that fact really started hitting home for me.

Well, that and the fact that I was living with a family of anywhere from four to seven or eight people that had on a good day four five-gallon buckets of clean water to use. If it was just for drinking, that wouldn’t be so bad, but when our pila is empty this is the water that gets used for everything: washing dishes, cooking, bathing, washing clothes, making the charamuscas (little popsicles in bags) that the family sells in their store.

Most people here go to the river to wash clothes and bathe, but I am leery about that a little for the cleanliness factor (this is the same river cattle tromp back and forth through all day) and a lot for the environmental factor: the part of me that clings to the principles of Leave No Trace dies a little bit at all that non-biodegradable soap going into the river.

Also the river is down a terribly steep, rocky goat path, and I can just see myself carrying a heavy bucket of wet, clean clothes up, losing my footing, and rolling all the way back down again, leaving shirts and skirts in a colorful trail behind me. That’s a persuasive argument too.

So I adapted. When I treat a bowl of water with bleach to wash my vegetables with, I reuse it to wash my dishes. I wash clothes a little at a time, and I’m getting good at it – I can do a couple of days’ worth out of a two-gallon milk jug, as long as I don’t have to wash pants. I can shower out of a little over half a bucket of water. I’m not saying this to show off (well, maybe I am, just a little); it’s what I’ve had to do to adjust, to use my fair share of water here and no more.

It’s amazing, how much you start thinking about water when it doesn’t come out of a tap and laziness is no longer an option if you want to stay even mildly clean and hydrated.

Anyway, all that musing is really just to say that I am glad it is raining this week, even if it does shut down the internet café and mean that my first youth group meeting was completely rained out. The pila is full, our secondary water buckets are filling back up, and I can wash my jeans again without feeling like I’m using up a third of my family’s water for the day. They may never actually dry again, but I’m sure there’s another Peace Corps proverb somewhere to make me feel good and rugged about that too.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Here I am all settled into my new home, at last! It has been a whirlwind so far, with moving in and starting to cook for my very own self and the vaccination campaign that’s been going on since I arrived.

The government here is very serious about vaccinating all the kids here, as many as it can reach. We’ve been going out in teams of three or four to different rural communities and setting up shop: sometimes in a school, sometimes in a “casa base” (a little one-room health post), sometimes just on someone’s porch. We vaccinate kids all morning and into the afternoon, I give a short talk about nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet, and when it looks like everyone who’s planning on coming has come, we go through the registry we have, note which kids are missing, and then we go and find their houses. Hiking through the forest in a thunderstorm? No problem. Over a mountain in the blazing sun? We’re on it, thermos of vaccines and bag of syringes, anti-parasite tablets, and vitamin A drops in hand.

It’s been good to get out and meet my neighbors, to see the area of the world I’m living in now. It’s very mountainous here, with lots of scrubby pines and rocky soil, and the people have so far been wonderfully kind. Stop to chat with someone for a minute to ask directions, and before you know it you’ve been sat down and given a plate of fried plantains, a cup of super-sweetened coffee, and the neighborhood kids have all come over to watch you eat and ask you questions -- where are you from? did you take the bus to Nicaragua? what's it like to fly in an airplane? are you married? how old are you? -- and when you leave you’ll have fifteen new friends and probably a plantain as a parting gift... or possibly an entire bag of them.

The campaign ends this week, and I’m still working out what I’ll be doing when it does. As a community health volunteer in Nicaragua I have three main goals to work on: reduce child and maternal mortality rates, reduce the incidence of HIV/aids, and reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy (a serious problem here: it’s not terribly unusual for fifteen and sixteen year olds to have children, and I’ve met more than a few girls my age or younger who have two kids already). I’ll be working primarily as an educator – I’m hoping to start working in the school here in the “urban” center and go from there. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Well, here we are... the last days of training! How incredible is that? The days are long here but the weeks have flown by, especially the last few. Swearing-in is at the end of this week, after which we will be honest-to-goodness bonafide Volunteers (complete with capital "V").

Last week we had mini-vacation of sorts, because of Holy Week. Nicaragua is a very Christian country (mostly Catholic), so Semana Santa is a big deal here. There´s no school all week, and Thursday through Sunda almost nothing is open. Lots of people go to the beach -- it´s the middle of summer here, and hot; perfect beach weather if you don´t mind a sunburn -- or vacation somewhere: León and Granada are both popular hot spots.

The evangelical churches here don´t do much to celebrate the occasion, but there are Catholic services every day, usually centering around processions. They start on Palm Sunday with a procession with palms and usually an "imagen" -- a statue -- of Jesus; in our town he was even mounted on a live donkey. The imagen went on a few other walks to different parts of town during the week, but the biggest deal started on Friday. All over Nicaragua people walk the "Via Cruz" in the middle of the day in the blazing sun, sometimes on their knees. That procession usually goes for a few hours, and then on Friday night there´s another procession. In my town, the imagen of Jesus was put in a glass coffin lit up -- they processed around town with it like that from about eight at night to more or less one am, accompanied by a marching band playing mournful music at top volume (because no Nicaraguan procession is complete without a marching band).

Saturday night there was a mass here for Easter Vigil, and another service on Easter Sunday itself, but they were very low-key after Friday´s excitement.

Another common thing here during Semana Santa is giving food -- we have literally a bucket of rosquillas sitting on our kitchen table which people have given us. Delicious!

There are lots of other cool things here during Semana Santa -- for example, in León they make all sorts of beautiful pictures out of sand on the streets, and when they´re finished, everyone processes over them. Maybe next year I´ll visit see it first hand.

First things first, though. Swearing-in, here I come!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 68

I’ve had more or less 68 days in country so far, if my math is right, so I guess I was probably past due for a Creepy Bug Encounter. Usually they happen in the first week or so, and you get your Bug Scream down pat and go on with your life; I thought I might be immune, but apparently I am just behind the curve.

I am not usually all that bothered by insects; it helps that there aren’t any poisonous or even really large bugs where I live. Mosquitoes are annoying, and I could live without black flies and june bugs or those beetles that invade gardens to munch on plants and have orange guts when you squash them, but overall Mother Nature and I coexist pretty contentedly.

During my site visit, on one of the days that I spent in the health center, someone from one of the outlying communities brought in an enormous chagas bug in a plastic bag, and that gave me pause. (We all live in utter fear of chagas disease thanks to the horror stories people love to tell about it – look it up and you’ll probably see why. It is like an invisible stalker of a disease that hangs out until you can’t even remember where you might have gotten it and then totally destroys your life; no thanks.) I made sure to ask the woman who had the bug where she was from, how far she lived from my town, and why she was wandering around with a chagas bug just chilling in a bag. (MINSA requires people to bring in chagas bugs when they find them in their houses, so they can record where they’re found; smart thinking. My next mission is to find the chart they record the information on and see where I am safe.)

So I handled the chagas bug pretty coolly and made sure my mosquito net was tucked in as tightly as it possibly could be at night and thought I was pretty safe.

But the bugs wait, and while they wait they have little buggy conferences about how best to take advantage of your smug complacency. And then this morning they struck.

It always seems like they find you in the bathroom in whatever Horrific Bug Story someone tells; there’s something about coming face to face with an enormous bug with beady eyes when you are barefoot and have only a travel towel with which to defend yourself that makes the whole experience a hundred times more terrifying. There I am, picking up my shampoo, and all of a sudden a cockroach launches itself at me out of nowhere, screaming its little war cry as it waves all of its legs around and scuttles toward me as menacingly as it could.

That made me jump, but I recovered well and dove for the bucket of water with the vague notion of washing it out the hole in the wall that serves as a drain, and something else brushed my hand. I looked down, and there was a spider literally bigger than my hand glaring at me with all eight eyes and looking even madder than spiders usually do.

I screamed. I’ll admit it. I don’t have a very impressive Bug Scream, nothing like the bloodcurdling, earsplitting ones you hear in movies when there’s someone on top of a chair with mice running around below, but it was loud enough for my purposes. I hit the cockroach with my bottle of shampoo, which only stunned it for a moment before it disappeared into the shadows somewhere, the way cockroaches always seem to do. Then the spider and I sat there for few minutes in a stand-off, watching each other.

“I need that bucket,” I pointed out, but it was unimpressed. Spiders are obnoxiously reticent at the best of times, and this one was mad at me to boot.

“Spider,” I said, “look, I respect your right to inhabit this bathroom, fine, but I have soap in my eyes and it is too early to deal with stubborn arachnids.”

No response. I finally ended up sort of gingerly splashing it with a little water, and it sidled away to lurk in the curtain, glowering balefully down at me the whole time, which made me entirely uneasy. I kept twitching my head around to keep an eye on it, half-afraid it might leap at me like the cockroach. I read the book Arachnophobia as a kid, and of course the only bits that stuck with me are the parts where the protagonists are shooting at enormous spiders with nail guns and the things just keep coming – this is not really a good thing for your peace of mind, especially as it is singularly disconcerting to be glared at by a spider to begin with.

My host mother found and killed it this afternoon, in case anyone with a horror of spiders should need to use our bathroom, but not before telling me that this spider is not actually large. “Oh no,” she told me; “this is just a little one.”

I’m definitely going to have to work on my Bug Scream.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

news from Honduras... I mean, Nicaragua

Here I am back again from my week-long site visit, and the bowl of fruit I had this morning for breakfast was the most delicious thing I have eaten in what feels like a long, long time. But let me start at the beginning...

My new home is tucked away in the mountains in the very north of Nicaragua, very nearly in Honduras. (We watched Honduran television the whole time I was there -- I've now become invested in a Honduran soap opera called “Doña Barbara” which is overly dramatic and therefore hilarious, as every good fotonovela should be.) It’s a tiny town, with two main streets running parallel to each other and not much else except the school and health center.

(The main drag)

(The health center)

It’s also small enough that I now know probably 80% of the kids’ names, mostly because they came looking for me and we played fútbol in the middle of the street every night I was there -- lots of fun!

(New friends!)

The area is a pretty arid part of Nicaragua to begin with, and last year there wasn’t much in the way of rain during the winter (which is May-October, which is really throwing me off), so as of right now, the hottest part of the year, it’s all dry as a bone and incredibly dusty.

(Everything is dry dry dry... and dusty)

(The views are pretty awesome though)

(The local river... good for everything from bathing to washing clothes)

Through some kind of combination of the local climate and local customs, people here hardly ever eat vegetables. Ever. Really. For every meal (and I mean every meal) at my new house, I ate rice and beans and tortillas in some kind of combination, with occasional boiled potatoes, fried plantains, french fries, or fried eggs to mix it up a little bit. So coming back to my training family, who is weirdly into fresh vegetables for a Nicaraguan family, has been a wonderful thing. (Plus we have an indoor toilet, even if we don’t have running water -- what a luxury!)

Between the poverty level and being unaccustomed to eating fruits and veggies, malnutrition is a pretty rampant problem in my area, so I think that’s something I’ll be working with quite a bit in terms of health education and trying out ways to make things more available, starting at the health center’s little store, which only sells junk food. There’s also a lot of work to be done with teenagers, mostly with preventing teen pregnancy. I met a pregnant 13-year-old and a 17-year-old who was pregnant with her second kid -- there are so many factors tying into the high teenage pregnancy rate here in Nicaragua (these kids’ stories are not uncommon), but that’s definitely one of the things I’ll be working on.

For now, though, it’s back to classes for another two weeks, and the final set of language and technical interviews to make sure we all meet the requirements for swearing in. Time flies so fast; it’s unbelievable!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

location, location, location

I have no pre-typed report to give you all today, so this is going to be much shorter than usual!

Our trip to Chinandega went really well; lots of practicing Spanish and learning about HIV/AIDS and its presence in Nicaragua. We gave charlas in health centers and schools and fire stations and naval bases between the 24 of us, all in one day, but wasn´t all serious -- we had some fun, too! We played one game called "birdie on the perch" our last morning in Chinandega:

And I had my first dip in the Pacific Ocean, which was beautiful:

And while I´m uploading photos, here are a few old ones from our trip to the volcano in Masaya:

BUT THE MOST EXCITING THING I have to say is not any of these things. The most exciting thing I have to say is that I received my site! For the next two years, I´ll be living and working in a little town in Nueva Segovia, the northernmost department of Nicaragua. I´ll actually be so close to Honduras that my info packet tells me that in many ways my site is more like Honduras than Nicaragua! I´m super excited about it, though -- I´ll be far from Managua but in the beautiful mountains where it´s cooler than in other parts of Nicaragua.

I leave in a few days to spend a week getting to know my site and meet my host family and work counterpart; I should have lots of stories when I get back!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

(No pictures again today since I spaced out about them and didn´t put them on my flash drive. Next time!)

So it’s been a while! There’s lots to catch you up on. We’re over halfway through with training, and the pace has definitely picked up; if it was busy before, it’s twice as busy now, what with youth group meetings (and getting the youth group to prepare their own charla to give in public), designing and giving a health survey in our communities, traveling to different parts of Nicaragua, more charlas in the health center and schools, and trying (and failing) not to worry about our site placements.

My visit to the mountains of Jinotega was relatively uneventful, except for missing my bus stop in Estelí and having to hike back along the carretera to where I was supposed to catch my next bus -- travel here is a little more difficult since no one announces the bus stops and more often than not there aren’t any signs marking them. But I made it to the site in the end, after about four hours on relatively even, paved roads and two on a narrow dirt road winding into the mountains. Our bus went extraordinarily gingerly, which was gratifying and nervewracking all at once: there is a joke here that school buses from the US go to Guatemala to die, and after they die in Guatemala they’re sent here.

Other than one flat tire the bus ride wasn’t actually that bad, except for the dust (and the fact that my legs didn’t fit in a school bus seat when I was still riding them to school, let alone now). We’re going into the hottest part of the dry summer season now, so everything is brown and the dust is pretty thick.

The site I visited was a quiet little town tucked away in a valley with lots of coffee and bananas, and not much to do except walk around and talk to people, which I did a lot of with the volunteer I visited. We went to the health center and the local casa materna (there is a whole network of these houses slowly being built up in Nicaragua for pregnant women to stay in during their last two weeks of pregnancy, in an effort to promote institutional births and thereby cut the rate of maternal and infant mortality) and to the school, but mostly we had conversations -- with a biologist who works for the municipal government, with street vendors and pulperia owners; with anyone, really, who wanted to talk to us. Nicaraguans in general are incredibly friendly people; they invite you into their homes and feed you whatever’s on hand, which in the north is usually tortillas, cuajada (a soft, salty cheese), and the ever-present gallo pinto and coffee or fruit juice which is generally one part coffee or juice and three parts sugar. My teeth ache a little just thinking about it.

The week we returned to our training towns, we went to Masaya to have our site fair and to visit the old market and the volcano Masaya is famous for. We now have a packet and basic information on the sites we’ll be sent to after swearing-in, which has upped my nerves exponentially, and we got to see a little more of Nicaragua, which is always welcome. We didn’t end up seeing much of the market, but the volcano was beautiful in a very stark sort of way. Pictures can’t really capture the size of it, or the feeling you get driving up to it over rolling hills where there’s nothing but black volcanic rock and red earth. (It doesn’t capture the sulfur smell, either -- we could only spend twenty minutes on the top of the volcano trying to look through the smoke into the crater, since Vulcán Masaya is still active and belches out quite a bit of gas.)

This past week we’ve been busy with a second round of language interviews to measure our progress -- we have to reach an intermediate level to qualify for service as a volunteer -- and with the normal ins and outs of daily language classes, youth group meetings, and charlas in the health center. Thursday was especially busy: I gave a 16-minute charla on hygiene in front of 19 people I’d never met before who were able to understand me, followed by language class and interviews, followed by an hour and a half long charla on the reproductive systems with our youth group in which we made the boys race against the girls to identify the organs and their functions -- things I never could have even hoped to do two months ago. And yesterday we traveled back up into the mountains as a group, this time to Matagalpa to visit a couple who are ending their service in a few weeks time so we could see the work they’ve done in the casa materna there. The bus ride was just this side of being excruciatingly long (we left at 5:30am and didn’t get back until 7:30pm) but it was fun to be all together as a training group, and interesting to see another site in action.

It’ll be good training, too, for next week, when we travel to Chinandega for four days to learn about and work with HIV/AIDS prevention. Chinandega shares a border with Honduras, which has a high rate of HIV/AIDS for this region, and Chinandega has one of the highest rates of HIV in Nicaragua, so there’s lots of work to be done there in terms of education and prevention. Chinandega also happens to be the hottest part of Nicaragua, and we are going during the hottest part of the year, so we may all melt, but if not I’ll be back next weekend with pictures from our trip and about twice the level of nervous excitement I have now -- our site placement is next Monday (which is, incidentally, the Ides of March... hopefully the day will go better for us than it did for Caesar!).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

granada, fiestas, and an upcoming visit!

(I was hoping to get pictures up this week, but I can´t quite figure out the system in the hour of internet I have -- hopefully next week I´ll get some up here for you all!)

This week has been super busy all week, which has been great. On Saturday, after a morning of classes and finding decent pizza (most pizza here is made with ketchup... just doesn’t hit the same spot!) in Diriamba and getting my first actual sunburn (oops), my host family took me to Granada to visit my host mother’s sister. Unfortunately we went just as the sun was setting, so although we got a great view of the volcano Momotombo and the sunset on our way there, once we’d reached Granada it was dark, so most of my pictures didn’t turn out well, and our view of the lake was pretty much peering out into the blackness in the general direction of the lake.

Granada is quite a happening place after dark, though, especially this week -- it is the poetry capital of a nation in love with poets and poetry, and the city was getting ready for a weeklong poetry festival, so there were people everywhere.

Granada’s also known for a few other things, one of them being “la gigantona”, a traditional dance. There are two dancers, “la gigantóna”, who is an enormously tall puppet-woman, and “el cabezóna”, a short puppet-man with an enormous head, and usually a few drummers, and for a few cordobas they’ll dance for you. We saw a few dancing while we were out and about, making money off of the (many, many) tourists out enjoying the evening. Even without the festival, Granada is known for being a tourist destination and even a popular place for foreigners to move to; it was disconcerting to see so many non-Nicaraguans (and to hear English being spoken!) after a month of living in a rural town here.

Another thing Granada is famous for is a dish called ‘vigarón’; something I probably would never have touched in the States but have been looking forward to trying here. It’s yucca cooked with chicharón -- fried pork fat -- and sprinkled with salad (which is usually something like tomatoes and chopped cabbage and onions in a sort of cole slaw minus the sauce), and actually was pretty good. Probably not my favorite Nicaraguan dish so far, but definitely tasty.

Back on the home front, our fiestas patronales has been going strong all week, and it’s been lots of fun seeing everything set up and getting underway. We even have carnival rides: a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round.

The hípica was on Sunday -- that's basically a big parade of horses where people compete to win prizes for the fanciest prances. Sometimes it seems like people are more interested in making a spectacle rather than actually competing.

Every night there’s been music and shows with traditional dances put on by local kids -- Tuesday night I went to see some of the dances, which were full of the traditional flowing colorful dresses and so on, but were also mixed in with some definitely modern dances set to hopping reggaton beats! Most nights (and days, for that matter,) have also been full of “bulla” -- that's general hubbub and noise -- and bombas, which are basically homemade fireworks people set off wherever they want, even in the middle of a crowd. Very different from the US!

We’ve had our first charlas -- our first formal talks -- in the health center and with our youth group; all of them went really well, especially with our youth group. The charla we gave them had to do with healthy decision-making and strategies for living a healthy, positive life, especially in terms of sexual behavior; definitely a priority in a country where it’s not uncommon for 13 or 14 year olds to be having kids, or for 17 year olds to have two or three kids already.

(Another success: our technical trainer came to our youth group meeting and told us he couldn’t believe we were the lowest level language group -- apparently we’re progressing faster than anyone expected, hooray!)

This morning, one of the locals was kind enough to invite us to learn how to make rosquillas, a very typical Nicaraguan food, especially during fiestas. They’re small, Cheerio-shaped crunchy things made out of maize; I think I’ve talked about them before. You usually eat them with coffee, but I like to eat them any old time -- they're delicious!

Today we also found out about our volunteer visits -- starting on Sunday we travel out into Nicaragua to visit current Volunteers in their sites for three or four days, learning about their daily life, what they do, and how they do it. Exciting! I´ll be heading up into the mountains in the north of Nicaragua, to the department called Jinotega -- I am supposed to bring a sweater as it can be much chillier there.

That’s all I have for now; hopefully this weekend I will get to see the famous “macho ratón” dance before heading out on Sunday for my visit! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another week come and gone already – I’m writing this on Tuesday, which means today marks three weeks since I flew into DC for staging. It seems like it’s been so much longer than that, though the last week has absolutely flown by.

We have a lot more to do now; the first week and a half or so was almost purely basic survival Spanish, at least for us in the lower level of language ability, and adjusting to the total culture shock. Now that we’re a little more familiar with the area and the language, we suddenly have a hundred things to do...

We’ve met two or three times now with the youth group we’ve formed: so far we haven’t done much except talk and play games, but next week we start giving our first “charlas”, or talks – one with the group and one in the local health center. Intimidating with the language barrier still very much in force, although it’s getting easier to understand other people, at least. Speaking is still stop-and-go to some extent – vocabulary is an incredibly, frustratingly stubborn obstacle – and I am definitely ready to stop sounding like a three-year-old. Sigh. We’re also starting to formulate the survey we’ll be carrying out in our training town: we’ve decided to interview people about myths and knowledge about HIV/AIDS, since the HIV rate in our municipality is worryingly high for the size of the population. We won’t be conducting the survey for a few more weeks, but wish us luck!

One of the strangest things has been catching glimpses of American culture here. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” keeps playing over TV advertisements for a local beauty pageant. There’s a Quiznos, a Subway, and a Sbarro in the mall in Managua – a mall that’s nicer by far than the nearest mall to my hometown. Today I watched “Invictus” courtesy of my host father and the thriving pirated DVD trade here... but with Spanish subtitles only, since something went weird with the sound and left only the background noise, with no speaking voices.

More adventures in food to report as well: pupusas, (the perfect finger food), which are a little bit like quesadillas with thicker, doughier ‘crust’ and usually cheese and frijoles molidas (think of a sort of thick bean sauce – a little thinner than refried beans,) in the middle, and as of today, pan dulce, which is exactly what it probably sounds like: basically a big crunchy bread thing coated in sugar. A little like fried dough, but less greasy. One other thing was a failure on the taste-front: a drink I think is called “chicha” or something similar, apparently very popular and traditional here. It’s made from maize and tastes a little bit like paste. I can’t decide if the tradition of coloring it bright, lurid pink makes it better or worse.

Irregular verbs in the preterite are on the agenda for tomorrow, along with planning our first charlas and heading to one of the local Ministry of Health offices for a technical seminar. I have finally unpacked my camera, as well, so hopefully I’ll have some pictures to put up here soon!

PS: I just found out that the fiesta patronal for my town begins this weekend -- 8 days of celebrating the town and its patron saint (Nuestra Madre de La Paz -- Our Lady of Peace) with traditional food, fireworks, and dancing! Should be very exciting; one of the famous dances that happens at a lot of these fiestas patronales is actually recognized as a World Heritage tradition. I´ll let you all know how it turns out!

Friday, February 5, 2010


Welcome to Notes from Nica, a blog about my life as a Peace Corps trainee in Nicaragua! Two weeks into training here, and as so much has already happened and I’m always terrible at starting things like this anyway, I’ll get things going with something simple: lists! Everyone loves a list, right?


- My host family and my training town. Pretty lucky for me! I live in a small town about an hour away from Managua, the capital city, where nearly everyone I meet is related to me through my host family. It’s a new experience to live in a place where people leave their doors open all the time, where they smile and wave and stop you in the street to chat, where kids and aunts and brother-in-laws are in and out of each others’ houses all the time. There’s a pulperia (a sort of Nicaraguan convenience store) and a public telephone in my front hall here, so there are always people in and out to talk to; a great way to meet more people in the community.

- The food in Nicaragua. There are very few foods I refuse to touch, and usually they involve fungus. I have to say, though, that Nicaraguans really know my weak spots. Beans and rice? Check: the favorite food here is gallo pinto, rice and beans cooked together with spices. Fresh fruit and veggies? Check: so far I have indulged in watermelon, oranges, mandarins, pineapple, avocados, limes, bananas, plantains and more, all a hundred times fresher than I ever got in the States. Eggs? Check, especially scrambled and in combination with potatoes. There isn’t as much meat here, which is a change, but instead there are things like rosquillas, baked crunchy tart-like things made from maize which are particularly popular during Holy Week, when they’re made into empanadas with a little bit of cheese and sugar inside. Delicious!

- My fellow trainees. There are something like 24 of us in our training class, and it’s been glorious to live and work with such a group of fun, positive people. I know there are probably going to be days when we want nothing more than to leave and go back home, when we won’t be able to stand each other, Nicaragua, our work, or ourselves, but starting with such a wonderfully upbeat group has got to count in our favor. Everyone has so far been very laid back and easygoing, and has brought their own kind of passion to the work we’re doing here; it’s so interesting to talk to everyone about the kind of work they’ve done in the past, and what they’re hoping to do in Nicaragua. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what kinds of creative things they start here.

CHANGES, because I don’t actually have a dislike list:

- The bus system. Nothing runs on a schedule or anything like one. We mostly rely on a network of microbuses, hopping on and off from bus “stations” which are sometimes nothing more than street corners, or just hailing the driver or “cobrador”, who sits with the passengers and takes the fares. Add to that the fact that there are no street names here – just directions like “one block north and two blocks east from the bank” (or from the site of an important event – even more difficult!) and traveling is always an adventure.

- Bucket showers. My house has indoor plumbing, but the water here doesn’t run all day – some days it only runs for a couple hours at about 4am. We fill a tank in the back yard and haul buckets from that all day to shower, flush the toilet, do the dishes, and wash our hands. I use a lot less water here, now that it’s more difficult to get than just turning on a tap! Added to that I’m going to throw in the lack of resources we take for granted in the States, particularly internet. I was so dependent on my wireless internet before I came here, and now the nearest internet café is a 20 minute bus ride away. Definitely a tough adjustment to make.

- Language. Obviously I knew I’d be living and working and breathing in another language, but it’s beyond frustrating to have things to say and be unable to communicate them. Adding to that the fact that existing in another language is seriously mentally exhausting, it’s no wonder I sleep incredibly well here (and have already breezed my way through three of the English books I brought with me, just to have a little bit of English in my day!). Slowly but surely, poco a poco; that’s my motto – it’ll come in time. Already I am light years ahead of where I was when I flew into Managua, and it’s only been two weeks!

That’s all I have for now; I’ll try to update this at least semi-regularly with new and hopefully exciting things, but we’ll see how it goes.

Adios for now, amigos!