Wednesday, December 2, 2009

AVC and AIDS Day

What a crazy past 10 days this has been. Two big things to update you on: All Volunteer Conference and the World AIDS Day concert in my department capital.
I’ll start with All Volunteer Conference (AVC). All of the ~180 volunteers in Peace Corps Nicaragua descended upon the Best Western Hotel in Managua (one of the nicest hotels in Managua- we were pumped) for two days of workshops, forums, meetings, etc. Due to budgetary reasons, apparently AVC was not held last year, so I feel lucky to be able to have participated this year. The theme of this year’s conference was “A cross-sectoral approach to food security.” If you’re a follower of my blog, you may remember a previous entry I wrote that had to do with food security. For those of you who missed it, the quick definition of the phrase food security is: “when all people have sustainable access to sufficient food to lead a healthy and productive life.” The root cause of food insecurity is poverty, so this topic is especially relevant in Nicaragua. Food security involves all the five sectors of Peace Corps working in Nicaragua (small business, environment, agriculture, health, and teaching English), so it makes sense that we addressed this problem with all the volunteers in-country with a focus on collaboration and cross-sector work. Food security has to do with whether appropriate food is available, if people have the purchasing power to access that food, whether they know how to prepare it in healthy ways, health conditions of food preparation...
Throughout the conference I attended workshops on food preservation and cooking, an informational session on careers in the Foreign Service which was facilitated by U.S. Embassy staff from Nicaragua, a information session on extension/transfer options within Peace Corps (yes, it’s possible to stay in Peace Corps for longer than two years, and perhaps go to another country!), and a session on career building for Nicaraguan youth. Throughout the entire conference we also enjoyed hot showers, air conditioning, cable television, a pool, gym, and amazing food. We all felt like we were in a sort of mini-United States for a few days. I met so many new people and made a lot of good connections for future projects and collaborations with other volunteers.
To close-out the conference, a talent show was held and open to all volunteers. To start out the show, they had asked for a presentation by each of the five Peace Corps sectors. Somehow, some girls from my health group and I ended up being roped-into doing a rap about HIV/AIDS. This was a rap that we had created in pre-service training months before, and it was still well-remembered by the other health volunteers and they all voted that we represent the health sector. Our rap group’s name was “Fusion 4” and we created a rap about the four bodily fluids that transmit HIV/AIDS. Intriguing, I know. It took us quite a while to think up rhymes in both Spanish and English, and each one of the four of us represented one of the fluids: blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. I got semen.
I’ll give you a few samples of our English rap lyrics so you can get an idea of our rhyming genius: “You might think you’re cool and daring, but you could be infecting yourself with that needle you’re sharing,” “If you wanna be a he-man, you better be baggin’ that semen!” “Hey mama, do the test before you give ‘em your breast!” And so on…
Needless to say, it went over pretty well and don’t worry, I have it all on video. Here is our rap group:


AVC ended on Thanksgiving Day, and perhaps the best part of the whole event was the Thanksgiving dinner that I got to attend. Peace Corps set-up all the volunteers with Embassy families and Peace Corps staff to have dinners at their homes. I was assigned, with three other girls, to the Public Affairs Officer (Kathleen) for the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua and enjoyed a very memorable Thanksgiving.
Kathleen had invited about thirty other people from her office (mostly Nicaraguans), and her two adopted Bolivian teenage daughters were also visiting from the boarding school they attend in the U.S. Now, to give you a little background information on why I was so blown away by the dinner, you have to remember that on a normal day-to-day basis in Nicaragua I am killing cockroaches in my bedroom, going without water/electricity, taking bucket baths, and eating beans and tortilla at every meal. Kathleen’s house, on the other hand, was located in a very fancy suburban gated community of Managua, had a pool and eight bathrooms. We ate with silver and china and had four different types of pie. The other Peace Corps volunteers and I were practically crying at the end of the meal we were so happy. We also were invited to spend the night at Kathleen’s house and to top all of it off; she let us use her washing machine!! What an amazing invention. We were in heaven.

The next day, I had to tear myself away from Kathleen’s house- it was very difficult to leave Managua after a week of gringo-time and good food and hot showers, but I had no choice. Besides, I had to scoot back to my site to get ready for World AIDS Day (December 1st). In my town, we organized a work-party with about 25 youth to make posters and large red ribbons to put up around the town with information about HIV/AIDS. Volunteers in my nearby departmental capital had applied for some Peace Corps funds to hold a concert by a popular Nicaraguan rock group, and it was held on December 1st and open to youth from the surrounding communities. I traveled there for the concert with six youth from my community (between 13-15 years old) to help out with the concert and to chaperone the kids. Before the concert started, there were lots of games and activities with questions about HIV/AIDS and prizes. I manned the ring-toss.




Many non-profits were also there with informational tables and were giving out pamphlets and condoms. About 400 youth attended in all. The musical group was called Perrozompopo (sp?) which in Nicaragua means “gecko.” The kids were star struck and after the concert were getting autographs on their arms, backs, shirts, pants… The three girls that came from my town were excited to be able to leave home on an adventure and spend time with other youth.




The highlight of the event was a large condom costume that the Peace Corps volunteers had made, and one of them wore it around the whole night, strutting his stuff and dancing. It was quite the scene. As a health volunteer you learn to be pretty comfortable with condoms.



After the concert, I ended up having to chaperone alone about forty girls in a dormitory-like facility. These girls were all hyped-up from the music and all the contact they’d had with boys that day and it was no small feat getting them in their bunks and the lights turned off. I think I slept about two hours the entire night. It reminded me of middle school, except this time the roles were reversed and I was the mean lady telling them to get in bed and be quiet. It went successfully though – when we woke up the next morning I was relieved to see that all the girls were still alive and breathing and not pregnant.
The concert was a great way to celebrate World AIDS Day – I met a lot of youth who were really passionate about AIDS education and were very knowledgeable. Others had no clue what AIDS was but just wanted to come to the concert. I guess the event helped both of them – hopefully the kids learned something through it all.

I’m getting ready to take Christmas vacation in a couple weeks, so no big projects planned until I get back. Just relaxing a bit in my site and settling-into my house a bit more (good news – fleas are gone!) I’m planning on going to Costa Rica with some girlfriends over Christmas. I’ve never been before and it’s going to be interesting to see the differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Although they are so close, they are worlds apart in terms of their economies, tourism, and environmental policies.
More soon – from Costa Rica!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A place to call my own

Since I arrived in my site, I have been searching for my own house to rent. After seven months of dead-ends, false promises, and general exhaustion with the whole process, I finally have found a house!
Why are you renting an entire house if you´re just one person? you may ask... Well, ¨apartments¨ don´t really exist here, so my best bet was to find a small, safe house of my own. My current host family situation is very crowded (12 people in three rooms), and I´ve grown tired of the endless gossip and drama involved with a large family.
The house (see ¨before¨ photo above) I´ve found is actually on the same street as my host family´s - just about five minutes away. It´s right next to the courthouse and the high school, so I feel safe. The neighbors seem very friendly and own a little fritanga - a Nicaragua-style street food ¨restaurant¨ selling things like fried enchiladas, tacos and chips. I´m renting the house from a local teacher for $50/month, which is a pretty normal price for a small house.
The house has four main rooms: a living room, a smaller room I´ll use as the kitchen - (I´ve decided not to use the outdoor firewood stove and kitchen the house has), a bedroom and then an extra bedroom I´ll use for housing visitors (come on over!) and for storing my mountain of reference books that Peace Corps has lent me for my work.
The past week I have spent waging a war on the house. Every day I have sweated and cursed as I swept, mopped, got rid of spiderwebs, fumugated, put in new light sockets, contracted a carpenter to put in new locks and doors, and, best of all - I painted!
In my hometown in Alaska, I remember when our neighboor, a Filipino woman, painted her house pink with blue trim. The entire neighboorhood (and perhaps even town) was in a bit of shock... Maybe in the Filipines you can do that, but in Alaska it´s just not normal to paint a house that color. Pink is one of my favorite colors, and I´ve often joked with friends that I´d love to have a pink house someday. Well, in Nicaragua, my day has come. It is completely acceptable, even enviable here to have a pink house. I decided on a fuscia color with dark brown trim, and my host brother and some of his buddies helped me paint it. They even told me how much they liked the color, and the neighbors also commented on how nice it looked.
I put in all of my things: a new bed, mini-frige, fan, stove, hammock...and I was all ready to finally start sleeping there when we discovered - gasp - FLEAS!!!
Yes, despite all of my cleaning efforts and all the cans of Raid that I had used, apparently the house had fleas. I had a little freak-out, needlses to say. I felt like in this war, the house was winning, and I was out of energy.
The next day I tracked down some venom to kill fleas and had a guy fumugate the house. We´ll repeat the whole thing in another week or so to get them all...
I´ve been looking up information on fleas on the internet the past few days, and it´s pretty scary. Having never really come into contact with them before (maybe Alaska´s too cold for many fleas?) my knowledge is lacking. Apparently there are many types, but they are a parasite - so they usually live on hosts: chickens, cats, dogs... Which makes me a little confused since there are no pets in the house, and the neighbors don´t have too many either. Although there are lots of chickens that like to cross over into my yard and pick through the grass. I´ve put up chicken wire, but they just fly over it...

So, although I have a nice pretty pink house, it still needs some work. I just hope I can move in before Christmas rolls around (I´m planning on going to Costa Rica with some girlfriends for a couple weeks). For now, my war wages on against the elements. If it takes all I have, I will dominate the fleas!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nica Bus

It’s the end of a weekend trip; something I do every couple of weeks to run to the bank, go grocery shopping and basically take a mental break from the predictable routine of my site. Sometimes I go far: 3.5 hours in bus to Managua, or perhaps to a closer city like Estelí. I can usually buy some luxuries like a smoothie, yogurt, wheat bread and Diet Coke when I take these mini-vacations, which makes the hot and crowded bus ride worthwhile. I’ll describe to you what a normal traveling experience is like in Nicaragua; it’s something that terrifies many tourists (and myself as well when I first arrived here), but is also a truly unique and far-from-boring way of travel.
I wait on the side of the road, keeping my eyes peeled for a colorful bus to come careening down the cobblestone road. Old school buses from North America are used here for public transportation. The names of the school district are either covered-up or spray-painted out, but sometimes you can still see “Springfield School District” or a similar phrase on the side. The buses are as colorful as the birds here, painted in a rainbow of colors. Stripes, ocean scenes, sunsets, and women’s half-naked bodies decorate the sides. Tassels hang from every piece of equipment inside: the steering wheel, shift stick, rearview mirror… Stickers depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Lord’s Prayer adorn the walls inside. “Only God knows if I will return” is a popular phrase to see above the driver’s seat.

I see a bus approaching. Squinting my eyes to see the painted letters announcing the destination on the front windows, I see that this is my bus. There is no real set schedule to the buses (though some might tell you there is), but they are so frequent, you usually just have to wait on the road a half hour or so and one will pass. I put my hand out, palm down and hit my fingers against my open palm, making the Nicaraguan “pull over” gesture. This simple movement is all the cobrador or “bus attendant” needs to see. He is hanging out of the open swinging door on the bus, practically falling out at sharp corners, keeping his eagle eyes out for possible customers waiting on the road. The bus signals its impending arrival with a few tweets of the horn, letting all the people they are passing know what is coming. They can be pretty insistent with the horn sometimes, seeming to say with their repeated beeps, “Are you sure you don’t want to get on?! Come on! We’re going your way!” The cobrador puts his free hand out in a “What’s it going to be?” gesture as he passes people – if they confirm with the downward-palm movement, the bus immediately decelerates. It doesn’t even stop – just barely slows enough for the person to be rushed onto the bus while it’s still moving.
I’ve made it on the bus and am immediately met with a jumble of scents. The overpowering smell of perfumed women going to work in offices as secretaries or bank tellers, fried enchiladas, tacos and potato chips being sold by vendors, hung-over men who carry the stench of last night’s alcohol binge, the fresh smell of soap of small children dressed in uniforms on their way to school, and the unmistakable whiff of chickens that people bundle under their arms like babies – on their way to someone’s stew pot.
There are no available seats, of course. The aisle is crowded with the other unlucky souls who also have to stand. I am pushed to the back of the bus by the cobrador who serves partly as a herder, shoving us around like cattle and calling out “Move back! It’s empty back there!” It’s a good thing I’m not a claustrophobic person because I am instantly enveloped in a ball of humans; plump mothers, young children practically being suffocated since they are too short to reach the open air, men wearing cowboy hats – right off their farm. I catch a glimpse of an old plaque remaining from this bus’s old days as a school bus in the United States: “Maximum capacity: 55” it reads. Hah! There is probably double that amount in that bus at the moment, and more people are constantly shuffling on and off. The bus stops every few minutes to let on or off a different person. There are no set bus stops; it is the cobrador’s job to tell the driver when to pick-up or drop-off people. As a rider, you have to stay alert and make your way to the front when it’s your turn to get off.

I hold on for dear life to the bars above my head (also adorned in colorful tassels) avoiding pushing into my neighbors too much. The cobrador weaves through the crowd with amazing agility as we zoom along, collecting money from the passengers and making change. He shifts himself between bottoms, hips, elbows, heads, breasts and stomachs being careful to say “excuse me” or “sorry” when necessary. I am always impressed by how the cobrador can remember so many things at once. He has to keep track of who has paid and who hasn’t, keep an eye out for people on the road flagging the bus down, and load large boxes and bags of fruits and vegetables (and the occasional dog) on the roof of the bus. Yes, that’s right – dogs. I have seen a bus that had a dog riding on the roof – standing up!
There are official prices for certain distances and they are supposed to be posted in a visible place on the bus, but it’s often forgotten. I ask a fellow rider what the price is to my destination and am informed that for this hour and a half ride they charge $1. I am careful about being over-charged since I am an American. I have turned into a pretty cheap person since joining Peace Corps – but when you’re only living on $200/month, every cent counts.
As the cobrador approaches me, he asks my destination and struggles to hear my answer above the noise of the pounding music. The radio is blaring, providing another layer of chaos to the ride. “¡Celos de tus ojos cuando mires otra chica, tengo celos! ¡Celos!” declares the singing woman. The songs are usually reggaetón, salsa, bachata, cumbia… declaring lost love, betrayal, or describing the perfect woman.
I get lucky: a seat opens up and I collapse gratefully. My hands have gone numb from being above my head clutching the rail for so long. I stare out the window at the rolling green hills. Rainy season is about to end and soon they will turn from vibrant to dry and dusty. Numerous buses pass us going the other way and our driver honks and throws a hand out in greeting. There is a strong camaraderie between these drivers and cobradors that reminds me of fishing captains and their deckhands back home in Alaska. Ignoring the solid yellow line in the highway, we pass other cars, buses, and donkey carts with a speed that surprises me – these buses are far from new and often break-down, but today this bus seems to be doing okay.
Today my ride is rather pleasant, but these buses can be nightmares when you’re sick. Every Peace Corps volunteer seems to have a story to share about a time when they had a bacterial infection or parasite and they had to take a 5-12 hour bus ride to get to the nearest laboratory, praying that their diarrhea would wait until they got to their destination. There are no restroom breaks on Nicaraguan buses. Being vomited on by a small child is also common.
Today however, I do not suffer from loose bowels and there are no infants in my immediate area. Just as I start to relax, a booming voice penetrates the air from the front of the bus. I crane my neck and see that there is a man selling vitamins, anti-fungal lotion and parasite medicine. These traveling salesmen frequent rural buses and are actually quite entertaining. They have excellent oratory and persuasive skills. As I listen to his little speech I find myself wondering, “Hmm, do I really need some anti-fungal lotion?? You never know…”
As we pass through a small town, we stop at the bus terminal for a few minutes and people push on and off the bus. Along with new passengers, several food vendors mount the bus, holding their wares high and in a sing-song shout, announce their products. The vendors are usually middle-aged women with generous panzas (bellies), and they all sport a frilly apron with pockets for napkins, straws and plastic bags. All foods are served in plastic bags - including drinks. The women compete to be heard above the din of the bus: “Chicken and tortilla!” “Juice, soda, water! Cold juice, soda and water!” “Hot enchiladas!” “Corn on the cob!” “Taco, my love? Delicious tacos!” I usually avoid bus food since most of it sits out in the hot sun for hours before it reaches your mouth.
The bus charges on and my destination coming into view. I get to my feet and my seat is instantly snatched up by a standing person. Struggling to the front of the bus I avoid stepping on feet as well as I can. I reach the cobrador who is counting money at the front of the bus and tell him where my stop is. As the bus slows, he grabs my bag and my hand (what a gentleman!) and helps me jump-off. No sooner do my feet hit the pavement than the bus lurches away in a cloud of dust, as the cobrador runs to catch up and jumps in the open door at the back of the bus. “¡Gracias!” I say, my words being lost in the puff of smoke they leave behind.
I orient myself and set-off to run my errands, looking forward to the Diet Coke that awaits me in the grocery store. Here in Nicaragua both the destination and the journey are exciting.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Champions!

Well, after six long months of daily practices and games every weekend, my team "Gemini" has won the local championships! We beat out four other teams, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. Even though the championship game was fraught with drama, bad calls by biased referees, complaints by both teams and a lot of attitude - we emerged champions. Like most small towns, these rifts between teams run deep, and when it all gets mixed with local politics of the town, it turns out pretty ugly. All the girls are pretty happy, despite the dramatic circumstances in which the final game ended. We had a team dinner after the game and danced until 2 am, still wearing our new uniforms. It was a bittersweet victory, not helped by the fact that my host family was vigorously rooting for the other team and hasn't let me hear the end of it since the night of the game...

All things considered, team Gemini has become a really close group over these past months, and yesterday I felt pretty sad that it was 4:30 pm on a weekday and I wasn't going to volleyball practice...
Some fans.

Our Coaches.

I'll be around for next year's season and am looking forward to hanging out with the girls and guys that I've met through the volleyball league throughout the coming year and a half that I have left in Nicaragua. (Wow, I'm already 1/4 of the way through my service!)

Another note: I should be moving into my own house soon, after a LONG and frustrating process of looking for a house to rent. I'm very ready to leave my current host family. Let's just say we have some fundamental differences. I'll put up a blog soon with photos of my new house. I'm contemplating painting the outside of it pink. Yes, only in Nicaragua would that be completely acceptable and normal.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nutrition in a developing country

I recently received a healthy lifestyle magazine in a care package from my family, and an article about antioxidant-rich foods caught my eye. In the U.S. this buzz-word, “antioxidant” is fairly well-known, but when I found myself trying to explain it to my Nicaraguan host sister over breakfast, I was met with a blank stare and a scrunched-up nose (in Nicaraguan nonverbal communication, that means confusion). “Free radicals?” She asked, “Those are in our bodies? Why do they need to be destroyed?” As I watched her eat some the typical breakfast of white sweet bread and tortilla with sugared-down coffee, I realized that this world of food that I was trying to explain was completely foreign. In Nicaragua, you eat what is available and you don’t complain. Food is a scarce resource that is subject to Mother Nature’s quirks and a person’s income level.

I realized that Nicaraguans don’t have ¨favorite foods¨ when I tried to use that as an ice-breaker introduction for a workshop I led with midwives. “State your name, the community you’re from and your favorite food” I instructed. One by one the women went off onto long tangents about how they just eat whatever is in season – beans, tortilla, etc. (of course, “only if God grants me the money to buy them or the good fortune to grow them.”) Most summed up saying that their “favorite foods” were beans and tortilla (aka what they eat every day). The concept was lost on them and I just had to smile at my mistake. I hadn’t realized before that experience what a luxury it is to even have a favorite food. The freedom of choice in what you eat is not universal and in poor countries such as Nicaragua, nutrition and health suffer.

In every rural Nicaraguan kitchen you can always find a few staples: tortillas made of maize, red beans, white rice and salty cow cheese. Sometimes there is a little bit of tomato, onion, plantain and some fruit to mix with sugar to make a sweet juice – but basically that’s about it. They don’t “count carbs” or even calories for that matter - most have never been inside a large grocery store that we would be familiar with in the U.S. A little corner store run out of someone’s house carries most of what they need: salt, sugar, beans, rice, white bread, soda pop…

As I continued reading the magazine, I saw a poll of some major personalities in the healthy-living world which asked them what they usually ate for breakfast. One nutritionist stated that he had “A medicinal smoothie that includes whey protein, a fatty-acid supplement, super greens, coconut powder, wild berry concentrate, goat milk kefir and frozen acai fruit.” My mouth literally dropped. This morning, when I went to my kitchen for breakfast there were red beans, tortilla and sweet coffee, period. If I were to read that article before joining Peace Corps, I probably would have thought – “Why didn’t I think of that smoothie?! I’m going to the store right now to stock up…” Now I realize that eating healthy is a privilege that only those in developed countries or with high incomes can afford. Before Peace Corps, even though I lived in the remote state of Alaska, I could still acquire a variety of exotic and healthy foods (however at a slightly larger price than the “lower ’48” – but still accessible). Another expert who was interviewed said that he enjoyed a Japanese breakfast; “steamed rice, miso soup, grilled salmon, pickles, cooked vegetables, sea vegetables and green tea.” Although there are some international restaurants in the capital of Managua, most people in the country only know “Nicaraguan food.” Being able to enjoy food from other countries that is easily affordable is also a benefit of living in a first-world, immigrant nation such as the United States.

I have been working lately in elementary schools giving classes on nutrition. Teaching something like the basic food groups is very useful and promoting a balanced diet. There are many varieties of fruits and vegetables here, but the habit of putting them into meals is not common. Simple carbohydrates, sugars and oil are prevalent, as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. I’ve gradually been teaching kids that sugar is not a protein, and that no, coffee is not good for toddlers.

I have also been doing some workshops in the surrounding communities teaching mothers and daughters how to cook with soy. Soy beans are grown in Nicaragua and are very affordable ($0.50/pound) and from just one simple bean you can extract soy milk, soy meat, tofu, soy flour, soy pudding... The benefits of soy are numerous: there is no cholesterol, it contains omega-3 fatty acids, has twice the amount of protein of red beans, and contains vitamin B and calcium. Although this bean is readily available here and often cheaper than the widely-used red beans, many mothers – due to lack of education, end up feeding it to their animals instead of their family.

There are also many food myths that need to be debunked. I have been working with a pregnant women’s group promoting breast feeding and proper nutrition for the mothers during and after their pregnancy. Many women believe that powdered milk you can buy at the store is somehow “better” for their babies than their own breast milk. There is also a belief that after birth, new mothers should only eat tortilla, cheese and a corn meal drink called pinol. Needless to say this does not provide to the mother the proper vitamins and minerals she needs to provide nutritious milk to her newborn.

Since I am a community health volunteer here, these ideas on nutrition are not new to me, but the longer I am here the more I realize how this affects one’s health. Who do you think will be more susceptible to illness? The kefir-shake drinking health guru in the U.S. or the malnourished Nicaraguan little girl who is fed on only beans and tortilla? The answer is simple and problematic. One’s income and education level are directly related to nutrition and therefore health. The term “food security” is thrown around a lot here in Peace Corps and has to do with ensuring that people have available, accessible and sufficient food that fulfuills proper nutritional requirements, whether this means they grow or buy it. Most Peace Corps volunteers directly work in this whether they are in the business, agriculture, environment or health sector. A married couple who is in Peace Corps who live about a half an hour away from my site recently co-wrote an essay regarding food security which won recognition in a worldwide Peace Corps essay contest. You can see the essay here: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whatvol.foodsecurity.volstories.werderlyttle

As I read that magazine, salivating at the photos of strawberries, spinach and apples, I also had to realize that I am still very thankful for the food that is put on my plate here every day. I know that people sweat out in the fields to cultivate these beans and corn. Those tomatoes and cucumbers were grown right here in Nicaragua. I am definitely eating locally this year. Although I can´t say I´m not looking forward to some good kefir when I get back to the states!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

¨Sweet Sixteen¨ - oops, I mean ¨Fifteen¨

For me, one of my biggest accomplishments since I have begun my service is the creation of a girls’ youth group in a small village nearby my site. The creation of and education of youth groups are one of the main goals for Peace Corps Community Health Volunteers. There are about 12 off-and-on members, and during our weekly meetings we address topics such as self-esteem, life goals, peer-pressure, family relations, puberty, teen pregnancy… We also have had “fun-days” where we go to a field and play volleyball, or paint our nails or make pudding. The club has been meeting since June and I’m slowly grooming them to be “youth promoters” – selected youth who will give talks to other youth about topics such as HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and STDs. It’s a slow process since you can’t just walk in and expect these girls to open up to you and talk about delicate topics. They are from a very small village (about 80 houses in total), they are more shy and slow-to-participate than the “city kids” from the main town where I am currently living.
During a recent meeting, we were talking about birthdays, and we realized that two of the most participative and outgoing girls in the group (aka some of my favorites) were both turning 15 within days of each other in September. For those of you who don’t know, in Latin culture, when a girl turns 15, it’s a big deal. If there is money available, the family usually throws a huge “coming-out” party complete with a ceremony in the church with the birthday girl decked out in a pink dress specially made for the occasion. In the United States, we celebrate “sweet 16,” but in Latin America, they celebrate their 15 años. My college roommate back in the United States was of Mexican heritage, and she had a large 15th birthday party. I watched the video of the event, feeling like I was watching a wedding. There were elaborate decorations, dresses, attendants (like bridesmaids), flowers, a catered dinner, dancing… Even a Congressional Senator was invited.
So, now that we know how big of a deal a 15th birthday party is, you can imagine that I was a little surprised when both of these girls told me that they didn’t have anything planned for their special day. “There’s no money,” they explained to me. The sad part to me was that these girls didn’t seem very upset by this – they were used to it. Why should they expect their family to spend money on a frivolous thing like a birthday when they had to worry about putting beans on the table?
I decided that something had to be done. After asking permission from their mothers, together we planned a joint birthday party for the two girls, Leticia and Olania, that would be held at Leticia’s house with the girls’ families and the whole youth group invited. Sparks lit up in the girls’ eyes as they explained to me everything that they would have to do: make paper decorations, music, pin the tail on the donkey, eat cake… As they mentioned cake, they looked around nervously. Cakes were expensive, at least $15/pound. I quickly offered to bake two cakes since I love baking and had recently bought some cake mixes while I was in the capital city. We made invitations that very day, cutting designs and drawing hearts and flowers into construction paper. “You are cordially invited,” they invites said, “to celebrate with Olania and Leticia their most special 15th birthdays. Your presence would be eternally appreciated.”
The date was set, and I would arrive with paper, scissors and markers (courtesy of the Health Center) to make decorations, the cakes and some enchiladas to give the invitees (it’s customary to eat a small meal then cake). Since the enchiladas only cost about $7 for 20, I decided to donate those as well. (Yes I know, this is all very opposite to my previous post on development work…I should have had the girls raise their own money for the food, but we had little time and I feel like these girls really deserved it)
The day before the party as I made the cakes using a friend’s oven, I started getting a little nervous about the party. It had been over a week since I had last seen the girls. Did they still remember the party was tomorrow? Were the invitees going to show up? Were they going to value all this time and work I was putting in to get them food and decorations? Would their families even come?
All my fears were put to rest the day of the party. I arrived a few hours early to see Leticia and Olania doing their hair, and even wearing new clothes! They had both traveled to the bigger town nearby to buy new shirts, pants and shoes. This was really touching because I know their families don’t have a lot of extra money, but they must have realized that it was these girls’ special day and it’s an unwritten rule that for your 15th birthday, you have to estrenar, or “wear new clothes.” They had already put up some balloons around the living room area and set-up some plastic chairs. A few invited girls had arrived early and quickly got to work making decorations. “Congratulations on your special day, Leticia,” and “Your family wishes you all the best on this day, Olania” their signs announced.


I had also brought a special surprise for the two girls; two crowns that I had decorated with their names and glitter. In my family, we used to be an “extended family” to a group of kids a local boarding high school, and we would have dinner with them once a week. When it was one of their birthdays, we would make a special crown for them to wear. Cheesy? Yes. But definitely fun. Olania and Leticia loved them. They thought it was the coolest idea ever and they pranced around the living room showing them off, and rubbing some of the glitter from the crown on their cheeks and foreheads.

Slowly, the invitees trickled in, to the sound of deafening reggaeton and bachata music. In Nicaragua, if the music is too loud to hear the person next to you talking, then it’s perfect. All the invitees came, and even Leticia’s mother came for the day (Leticia lives with her grandmother and her mother lives about 3 hours away. They rarely see each other). I was really touched when Leticia’s mother came up to me to introduce herself and to say how thankful she was that I was a friend to her daughter and that I had helped them organize this party. She said that she wouldn’t have missed out on this event for the world. Leticia had an extra glow about her that day, always hovering close to her mom and making sure she was comfortable and had a glass of juice at all times. This is her and her mom and brother below:

First, the enchiladas were served with mango juice – reggaeton music still serenading us in the background like a jackhammer… Then it was time for pastel – cake! I had made one chocolate and one vanilla. They had never seen a chocolate cake before, and after we sang and the mothers said their respective congratulations to their daughters, they tore into the cakes.
Then we played pin the tail on the donkey (apparently you’re never too old for this game) and then it was dancing time. A few awkward-looking teenage boys appeared out of the woodwork and the girl who was serving as DJ for the day started in with salsa, hip hop, oldies from ABBA and Air Supply, and Celine Dion. Midway through, Olania and Leticia found a microphone that hooked into the speakers and stood up in front of everyone (about 20 invitees in all) and said thank you to me for helping them have this birthday party that they wouldn’t have done without me. As the other girls around the room nodded in agreement, I got a warm feeling. I felt appreciated and I felt at-home with these girls, two things that have been somewhat lacking since I have arrived in Nicaragua. After taking probably 100 photos on my digital camera (they just couldn’t get enough), they continued dancing.


As I was heading out, going to catch my bus back home, Olania’s mom came up to me with tears in her eyes. “Thank you so much. This has been such a special day for Olania and I know she won’t forget it,” she said, pressing a tamale into my hand. It was the only thing she could offer me as thanks. I took it gratefully and said goodbye to all the girls (who were still dancing, having been joined by more boys), reminding them of our meeting the next week. I came back to my house that night feeling very satisfied. We had actually done something here in Nicaragua that went as planned! It even started on time! It was nice to know I had had a positive impact on the girls. I know these will be the moments that I’ll remember in the future as I look back on these two years.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mini-Vacation

A friend of mine was passing through Nicaragua last week, and I decided to take a few days off to travel to a few places that I hadn’t been to yet, but they have been on “my list” for a while.
First, we went to Ometepe Island. The island was in the running for the recent selection of the new “7 Natural Wonders of the World,” but since the winners were chosen by electronic voting and given that Nicaragua has spotty and sparse internet access, sadly Ometepe get enough votes to make it to the semi-finals. The island itself is, nonetheless pretty amazing. It is located in Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America (1/3 the size of El Salvador) and located on it are two Hershey kisses-shaped volcanoes, “Concepcion” and “Maderas.” The volcanoes are connected by a small isthmus, forming an hourglass shape. The island’s 35,000 residents as well as visitors must come and go by a small boat or ferry in a one-hour trip.
As we crossed the brown and windy lake traveling to Ometepe, the two volcanoes loomed closer upon us. The tops were shrouded in pillows of white clouds, which is typical, especially since it is rainy season.


I was very surprised at the lack of development on the island. I had expected to see a very touristy and commercialized area, but was met with a typical rural Nicaraguan environment. I found the cheapest hostel (aka a family’s home) I’ve ever stayed in there for just $3/night! The residents seemed like a very tight-knit community and were very hospitable. It made me think of my hometown in Alaska which is also located on a small island in the shadow of a volcano. When tourists arrive on cruise ships to visit our town, it’s not uncommon to hear the complaints of locals lamenting the fact that these foreigners come and “take” our fish, crowd our streets and in general, ruin the ambiance of small island living. The residents of Ometepe however did not seem jaded by all the light-skinned, backpack-lugging foreigners wandering around their little oasis. Most were very friendly and hospitable. The majority of the roads are unpaved and as we walked around the dirt streets past dozens of adobe homes, I saw that people still lead traditional lifestyles despite the thousands of tourists who come to this tranquil place each year. Most people made their living fishing, growing corn and beans or bananas. The island itself is still very undeveloped and wild.

We climbed Volcano Concepcion (1610 meters) which is the larger of the two volcanoes. Its last activity was in 2005. The climb took us six hours round-trip and we went with a guide and some other tourists. The trail was surprisingly well-kept, steep and surrounded by green vegetation. Along the way our guide pointed out several species of insects, butterflies, flowers, trees and we even saw (and heard) a few howler monkeys lurking in the trees above us. The trail was pretty tough at times, and another girl on the hike who had a bacterial infection (aka lots of diarrhea) didn’t quite make it up to the top (we started worrying about dehydration when she stopped sweating). She stayed behind as the rest of us trekked on above the tree-line and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the lake and the island beneath us. It was a rare day with few clouds, and we enjoyed the surprisingly cold breezes that refreshed us at the top.



Another afternoon in Ometepe we rented kayaks and paddled out to “Monkey Island” and got up-close views of some relatively tame monkeys that permanently lived on them. I think they used to be old pets and they must be fed by island residents, but we also heard numerous warnings about their sharp teeth and short tempers, so we didn’t get too close.


Being out in a kayak also gave me a great look at the symmetrical Volcano Concepcion.

After returning to “mainland” Nicaragua from our peaceful time in Ometepe, my friend and I decided that one volcano just wasn’t enough and we decided to climb up Volcano Masaya, which is right outside of the capital of Managua. The active volcano is located inside of Masaya Volcano National Park and last erupted in 2001, spewing hot rocks 500 meters into the air. Masaya was a much easier climb than Concepcion (the paved road might have had something to do with it) but the heat was scorching. There were few trees since previous eruptions had destroyed the forest and we had to hike in the hot midday sun. No matter how much sunscreen I applied, it was immediately sweated off.
Our work was rewarded at the top as we viewed the Santiago Crater, the main attraction; a smoke-emitting, gaping wonder. The smell of sulfur filled the air and the park guides warned visitors to stay at the top for no longer than 20 minutes because the toxic fumes. There is also a cross located at the top of the volcano, placed there by the Spaniards who viewed the active caldera as the “entrance to hell.”



To end the trip, I had to stop at the famed artisan markets of the city of Masaya, right outside of the Volcano National Park. Most of the markets are tourist traps with high prices, but I was able to get some “inside information” on where to buy cheap hammocks (a must-have souvenir from Nicaragua). After perusing numerous colorful woven hammocks of all shapes and sizes (some “family-size” hammocks could fit up to seven people!) I finally picked out a comfortable-looking striped hammock that should be the perfect place for lounging on the front porch of the house that I plan on moving into.
HAMMOCK
Yes, that’s right, at the end of this month, I should finally be moving out of my host family’s place after five months with them and into my own house! It’s a simple, small house, no toilet (just a latrine) and there are quite a few improvements to be made (such as putting in a fence to keep the neighbor’s chickens out and a good paint job), but I’m excited to have a place to call my own. More updates on that to come…

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Children of the Corn

Hijos del Maíz is a term you’ll hear Nicaraguans proudly referring to themselves by. “Children of the corn.” Corn is the traditional staple of their diet and literally in every bite they eat. The harvest time is approaching (late August to September), and the whole community is involved. Men and boys are out in the fields planting and harvesting, the women and young girls are cooking, cleaning and sorting the harvest, and everyone participates in the eating. The corn harvest is probably the most important of all. It is often only done once a year (while red beans, the other main food, are harvested twice). The corn crop is dependent on the rains that fall during the rainy season here (May-October). Too little rain can mean that some villagers go without food for part of the year. Because of their shallow roots, too much can also spoil the crop. Agriculture work (corn, beans and coffee) employs the majority of men in the small villages here.

My town held their annual Corn Festival this past weekend in honor of this important vegetable, and I was blown away by the sheer number of foods that you can make with corn. There is at least one if not more corn products included in every meal here.
As part of the festivities, a “Corn Queen” was selected. Eighteen young girls from the surrounding communities paraded up on a stage decked-out in dresses and hats fabricated from corn husks and kernels, dyed different colors.

The contestants had to perform a traditional dance and also were asked to name the ingredients in several typical Nicaraguan corn foods as a test of their corn knowledge. What did the winner receive? You guessed it: corn (and some makeup products).
There were vendors at the festival from all the 24 surrounding small communities selling just about every possible food made with corn known to man. I’ll show you a few.
First, tamales. These are probably familiar to many Americans, since they are also part of traditional Mexican food. These tamales pictured below are sweet- mixed with sugar and cream. Other variations include adding beans, pork, chicken… They are wrapped in corn husks.

This is another variation of tamale called nacatamal. It has the same corn meal base, but also contains rice, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and pork (or chicken). They are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a large pot over a fire. The final product is an entire meal in a little leaf-wrapped pouch. They are sold for about 50 cents.

This dessert is called atol. It is basically a corn starch pudding with cinnamon and sugar. It is usually served chilled.

This food below is very similar to atol and is called atolillo. It is thicker and served in squares like a brownie.

This food is called buñuelo (boon-way-low). These fried corn meal and cheese balls are soaked in a sugar cane and cinnamon sauce. They’re best when they’re hot and fresh.

This pink drink is also made from corn (just one of many corn beverages here). It is called sosolca or chicha. It is made from ground corn and sugar and a hot pink dye gives it it’s color. Most drinks here are sold in plastic baggies like these; you tear a hole in a corner and suck out the contents. Another popular drink here made from corn is called pinol and is made from toasted ground corn and cocoa and cinnamon. Nicaraguans also refer to themselves as “pinoleros” – strongly identifying themselves with this national drink.

And of course we can’t forget tortillas. There are two main types of tortillas made from corn here- the more prevalent ones are made with mature corn and most households make at least 30 a day as they are eaten at every meal. However, the tortillas pictured below are made from baby corn and are called guirila (wee-ree-la). They are thicker and have a sweeter taste. They are eaten with a white fresh cow cheese called cuajada. It’s similar to mozzarella, but a little more salty.

And good old corn-on-the-cob made from corn picked that day. The easiest for on-the-go eating, it’s often sold by walking vendors on buses.

These are corn meal and cheese baked rings called rosquillas. They are typical of the northern region where I live in Nicaragua and there are hundreds of little rosquillerías - rosquilla shops - that compete to make the best ones. They are made in the salty version and also made with a cane sugar topping to make a sweet treat. They are eaten with coffee – you’re supposed to let the rosquillas soak in the coffee to soften them, eating them when you’ve emptied the cup of liquid.

Indio viejo (“old Indian”) is also a traditional Nicaraguan dish. It’s a cheese and corn meal-base soup with chicken and vegetables. It’s very thick and filling and very salty. It’s often made in very large pots to serve many people (such as at a party, funeral or wedding).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour through Corn Country. This list I’ve created of Nicaraguan corn foods is certainly not comprehensive. Who would have thought that all of these things could come from one plant? While my job here as a Health Volunteer is to advise Nicaraguans on a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables (as you can see, their diets have a strong base of carbohydrates), it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer variety of foods they can squeeze out of this simple grain.

Another fun fact: I am often called "pelo de elote" (hair of corn) for my blonde hair which bears a strong resemblance to the hairs on a stalk of corn...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When I grow up...


Back when I was in the 2.5 month-long Peace Corps training, I was required to teach at least five classes to primary and secondary schools. The classes would be over health-related topics, but starting out simple, since we were still getting our footing here in Nicaragua. It was more of an opportunity to work up our confidence leading a classroom in another language and becoming familiar with the education system here.

One of the classes that I gave was to a group of 10-13 year-old kids about self-esteem and life goals. Although it sounds like a somewhat mundane topic and maybe even unnecessary, it is exactly these simple ideas that need to be imparted to youth here. Low self-esteem often leads to behaviors such as drug use, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS infection, dropping out of school… All the same things it can cause in the United States, however since we are in a developing country, the effects are augmented. As for life goals, most kids here don’t plan if they’re even going to go to class tomorrow, much less what they want to be when they grow up. It is important to get these children to cultivate a high self-esteem and keep their life goals in mind as they develop.


The class went well – I worked in some fun games like hot potato and musical chairs to get the message across. The kids loved it. The education system here is very formal and usually consists of the teacher writing up on the blackboard and the students dutifully copying down word-for-word. Sound like fun to you? Kids love it when Peace Corps volunteers come in and bring new ideas and games to them, although sometimes it can be difficult to get them to participate. Some kids get shocked when I ask them to draw a picture of their favorite animal, or to act out a role play. They withdraw into their shyness, not knowing what to do. It usually takes a bit of time before kids will open-up to more non-formal education methods.
When we were talking about life goals, I had each of the kids take out a piece of paper and write on it what one of their goals in life was. I said they could write whatever they wanted – it could be about their future career, their home life, their friends, their physical abilities, their education… They carefully concentrated on their work, barely looking up. When they started passing them in to me, I saw that many had decorated their papers with little drawings and used different colored markers to elaborate the words. Some had even folded up their papers into little designs. As I walked home that day from the school, I started reading through their goals. What I found really surprised me and made my day (actually, my week). I’ll give a few examples below of what they wrote, in their exact words, to show you a glimpse of the youth of Nicaragua 
-I want to be a Doctor. I also want to be a Secretary.
-I want to be a worker.
-I want to be a singer. (this one was surrounded by flowers with the girl’s name written above)
-I want to be a firefighter, no… policeman (complete with a drawing of a policeman and a gun).
-I want to be a doctor. Or if not, a teacher and carpenter, also I want to be a secretary and a baker.
-I want to be a professional (there were lots of this one).
-I want to be a professional lawyer.
-I want to get my bachelors degree and work as a cashier. (?)
-I want to get my associates in nursing.
-I want to be official.
-I want to work in Spain to give money to my mother.
-I want to be responsible.
-I want to be the boss of a military base.
-I want to have a good family and be a good mother and a good cook.
-I want to study.

I hope some of those made you smile; it made my heart smile to read those sincere and ambitious responses. It made me realize that these children have actually thought about their future, and they desire more than perhaps their parents or grandparents did (who are often illiterate or have no formal education or profession). I just hope that most of them will be able to realize those goals.

Working with youth here is often a Peace Corps volunteer's main focus. In any given culture, it is the youth that are more open to new ideas and are more likely to change negative behaviors. They also accept us foreigners just as we are, whereas in the adult population, we might face scrutiny or mistrust. I’m going to have a meeting with my town’s mayor next week to discuss youth group possibilities in the future. I’m hoping to secure some funds. I envision reactivating the youth group program that was once vibrant in this community. (A previous volunteer in this community installed a “Teen Center” in town for the youth to use). Wish me luck as I go forward with this!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Danger!!

Today was an exciting day. While most days here in Peace Corps Nicaragua are relatively uneventful, with plenty of time for reading, chatting with neighbors and sleeping, today was a little more action-packed. One could even say… dangerous??
I accompanied a group of three nurses and a doctor out to a nearby small village which is part of my town´s municipality. I wasn´t sure exactly why we were going – they just told me that we were going to see a few patients. I didn´t have anything planned that morning, so I decided to tag along. As we rode along in the ambulance, speeding down the Pan-American Highway, I noticed that one of the nurses had some posters which contained information about Tuberculosis (TB). ¨What are those for? ¨ I asked. ¨Oh, I´m just going to give a talk about TB to the people there…¨ she said absentmindedly.

I came to find out, as we got to the community and started hiking up the mountains to where the houses were located, that we were doing a home visit to a family that had had a positive TB case. The patient, an older man was currently in the hospital, but had had contact with people in the house before he was admitted. ¨Oh great, ¨ I thought to myself, ¨Infectious disease, here I come.¨ We carried no gloves, masks, hand-sanitizer… just a few plastic jars to take saliva samples and the wordy Nicaraguan Ministry of Health official guidelines on Tuberculosis.

After walking in the 95F humid weather for a good half hour, we reached the house. Despite the desired shade that the living room provided, we entered a bit cautiously. I could almost hear the others holding in their breath, or was it my imagination? We looked critically around the house, as if searching for the TB germs that would suddenly go floating by, like the large flies we were constantly swatting away. We were met by an older couple- the TB patient´s parents. They were the only ones who lived in the house, but of course there were neighbors and small children constantly filtering in and out as well. We began our interview, asking when the patient´s symptoms started, where he lived, who slept in the room with him, who had had contact with him after he started becoming sick… Writing down all the details in chronological order was a difficult and long process. The information did not come easily. The older couple got confused, kept changing the dates, left out important details. The TB patient, who lived in another town by himself, had come to his parent´s house when his symptoms started. He lost his appetite, was tired, had a fever, night sweats, and a strong cough accompanied by a clear liquid. They had cared for him for four days in the house, everyone sleeping the same room.

Tuberculosis is a infectious disease that spreads through saliva (through talking, coughing, sneezing...) The chance of being infected is increased in poor countries like Nicaragua, where sanitation is substandard and many people live under one roof and sleep in the same room.

As the interview progressed, I found myself taking part in it as well- asking questions, and giving general information to the older couple on what TB was, how it was spread and how it was treated. I was pretty surprised that the doctors and the nurses let me do this – in fact, they seemed relieved that I stepped in and explained some of it, since it had been a while since some of them had brushed up their TB trivia. Not that I do either. Most of my limited knowledge about TB comes from the book I recently read, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Paul Farmer (a great read about public health in Haiti, Russia and Peru), or from reading the pamphlets and small booklets about TB that I´ve seen here while in Nicaragua. Needless to say, I´m no expert, but this older couple really listened to my advice, as simple as it may have been. Maybe it´s because I´m from the United States and look different from them. Maybe they thought I was a doctor… In any case, I´m glad I was there, because through some of my probing questions, we found out that there were actually young neighbor children the man had had contact with that could also possibly be infected. This information was not immediately given, and I had to dig for it. We ended up taking saliva samples from those children as well as the older couple.

After we had talked to everyone that had contact with the TB patient, we started to return to the ambulance to head back to town. At this point, the second exciting event of the day occurred. This community we visited was right along the Pan-American Highway which runs from North America to South America, cutting Nicaragua in half. My municipality is located in the north of the country, right on the border with Honduras. If you have been watching the news lately, you may have seen that in Honduras in late June, a military coup overtook and kicked-out (literally, out of the country) the President, Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya is a leftist leader and ally to the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez and Cuba´s Fidel Castro. Zelaya has been unable to re-enter his country since the coup, his plane not being allowed to land on Honduran soil. I saw on the news yesterday and was alerted by Peace Corps Nicaragua safety and security staff that Zelaya was planning a land-invasion of his own country via Nicaragua. Specifically, he was planning on undertaking a forced entry of Honduras at the border crossing which is about an hour north of my community by car.

As we walked towards the ambulance, suddenly a caravan of police cars and large pick-up trucks filled with people – some of them with television cameras, others with guns – flew by, headed north on the Pan-American towards the border. They were about 20 vehicles in total. This was obviously the Zelaya caravan – apparently he had announced that that morning around that hour that we happened to be walking along the highway, he would be heading to the border. A few minutes later, large trucks filled with Nicaraguan soldiers also sped by, heading in the same direction. Were they sent by the Nicaraguan President, heading up to be support staff of the Zelaya group? Or to calm the riot that was sure to ensue? ¨Those men are going into a war¨ commented one of the nurses about the caravan. ¨That Zelaya is crazy to do this.¨ Reports from the Honduras side inform that hundreds of Zelaya supporters have moved to the border area to meet the ex-president and protect his re-entry from the military. The government “de facto”, gave the military and the police force the order to apprehend Zelaya if he crosses into Honduran territory.

A shiver ran down my back. I wondered what would happen in the coming hours at that border. I knew the place they would try to cross – I had recently bee there helping with the Human Influenza border checks. The crossing was a relatively small area with a dilapidated customs building and a pathetic duty-free store (blenders, irons, towels…yeah, that´s about it). Many Honduran and Nicaraguan citizens cross each day to work on the other side, to visit family and friends, and do their shopping. Was this the place where we would possibly see a military stand-off? Would people be hurt?

I´ll have to check the news tomorrow online (probably when I´m posting this blog) since the local available news here on the radio and TV is highly biased and un-reliable. Only time will tell whether Zelaya will return to power or if the coup will keep holding him off. Apparently, one of the motives for the coup was Zelaya´s recent desire to pass a law which removed term limits on his presidency. On a similar note, the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last week declared this was his desire as well. Hmm.

So, since my morning included both a communicable disease and a military coup, today is a little more eventful than most that I´ve had here. I mean, the most exciting thing that happened to me in the past week was the fact that the local cyber café got a new fan installed (so I won´t boil to death when I´m getting my internet fix), oh- and the fact that the little store on my street started selling Diet Coke. Yes, I live on the dangerous side here in Peace Corps.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Development work

Although I have only been in Nicaragua about 5 months, I feel like I have already learned so much about international development work. Before I came here, I always thought that the money that Westerners donate to those “save-the-children” funds, traveling brigades of doctors, church mission groups, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs - referred to as ¨non-profits¨ sometimes in the US) always went directly to where the need was, and it was used just as they would hope. With these donated funds a village would have new latrines built, a child would be sent to school, a woman would have a tumor removed…and their life would be great. The Westerner could then feel a little better about themselves, feeling as if they had really done something.
When I first arrived at Peace Corps and we began our development training, we were told that as Peace Corps volunteers, we were different. Rather than coming in from the outside and handing out money and resources sporadically, we were working from the bottom up. We began to learn about the importance of community integration, learned about community analysis tools to decipher what the community actually wanted, needed, and could make happen. We learned that our Peace Corps service is not about us. It is not about accomplishing something that looks nice on a piece of paper or on a resume, rather it is about giving Nicaraguans a hand-up, not a hand-out.
As I’ve been in my site for the past three months, I’ve seen several development projects from foreign countries pass through, and I can’t help but see them through my new “Peace Corps lens.” Is what they’re doing sustainable? Is it what the community really needs? Does this really help the citizens advance and develop or does it just further reinforce the fact that when foreigners come to visit, they arrive with full pockets to disperse their riches among the population? I am often approached in my site and throughout Nicaragua being asked for money, or when I am involved in projects, people think that I magically have the power to produce funds to make it happen. I feel like most Nicaraguans have a little speech memorized in which they go on and on about how they come from a poor country, they have little education, they need our help…After explaining to them that Peace Corps give technical rather than monetary assistance to its countries of service, they look at me with a rather confused and non-believing stare. What? An American without money? I don’t have much patience now for their practiced “sob story.” That may work on someone who doesn’t live here, but I know better now. These people may be poor, but that does not mean they are helpless. I have met some of the smartest people I know here in Nicaragua- they are a loving, hard-working people who do not deserve our pity or our hand-out. They deserve our cooperation and respect.
I have seen many medical brigades, student groups, church missions, and NGOs come through Nicaragua. They are usually here between 1-4 weeks, building latrines, seeing patients, giving out soccer balls, building basketball courts… They come, they see, they build/see a few patients/teach a few kids how to play volleyball, and they leave. Although I don’t want to sound like a complete killjoy since these groups ultimately do good work and many Nicaraguans benefit, but ultimately they are not sustainable and do not train or involve Nicaraguan nationals as much as would be desired. If Nicaraguans were educated in how to raise money and carry out these projects, perhaps these foreign brigades wouldn’t be necessary.
I don’t want to make Peace Corps and my role here seem superior to what others here are doing- it all has the same goal in mind: development of Nicaragua as technically capable and healthy country.
Now that I’ve been here some time – being the only Westerner in my town surrounded by Nicaraguans, it is quite easy for me to also look at these traveling development groups from the perspective of a Nicaraguan. I can just imagine them thinking, “Have you gringos gone crazy?? Go home to your nice carpeted, air-conditioned house… get some pizza delivered! Why would you ever want to waste your time down here helping us poor Nicaraguans when you have a way better life back there?” I vaguely remember why those gringos do it though- a feeling of satisfaction from the work done, perhaps a feeling of guilt for all that they have in life, a true passion for helping the less-fortunate…. After all, it was some of those very feelings that prompted me to join the Peace Corps. How is it that I have changed?
Well, I’ve realized that not all development work is equal. Conducting a full community needs analysis is really necessary if your project is going to have the desired impact. Sometimes, just giving someone a hand-out actually hurts them in the long-run. They learn that money and resources will just come to them if they wait long enough and look poor enough, rather than striving to become educated, involved, or employed, effecting positive change in their community.
I’ll give you an example from my life here. All the girls on my volleyball team (there are 12 of us) do not own tennis shoes or anything resembling them. Most of them practice in sandals, flip flops, or slip-on plastic shoes. I desperately wish that we all had good shoes since this would make practicing less painful for them and also help us play better as a team. Extra-curricular activities are non-existent in Nicaragua, so for many girls this team is the highlight of their day and their only reason to leave their house. I could probably write a letter to Nike or some other sports supplier to request that they send us some shoes or funds, but on the other hand, that could have negative repercussions. I would be looked at from that moment on as the American who got free shoes for her volleyball team (and this wouldn’t be a good thing). I would go from being Penny the Peace Corps Volunteer to Penny the Walking ATM. Nicaraguans wouldn’t understand that Nike feels it should give these shoes out of the goodness of its heart (not to mention tax breaks). They just see a rich Western corporation giving hand-outs again; and they are not shy to open up their hands. In my town I would be hassled, gossiped about, and solicited until I gave out more shoes to every child in Nicaragua. A better way to go about this I’ve realized would be to have the girls raise their own money for the shoes: selling food, putting on a dance… Or show them how to write their own letter to Nike requesting money. When they have ownership of the project, it is more meaningful for them, increasing their self-esteem and self-respect.
So, while I do value the hard labor that these traveling groups and NGOs do in Nicaragua, I’ve also realized to look with a more critical eye at their projects. Are they seeking sustainability? How do they decide on a project? Who does the actual work? Is their host country involvement? Is the host country paying part of the cost? If I donate to any NGO or charity in the future, it will also be with this in mind.
On that note, if any of you reading my blog enjoy donating to a development organization, I suggest that you check out the Peace Corps volunteer projects that you can donate to through the Peace Corps website. It´s called the Peace Corps Partnership program. (see website at - https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors ) Peace Corps volunteers from all over the world can solicit funds through the website for their local projects; HIV/AIDS programs, deforestation education programs, adolescent clinics, seed banks… As I mentioned before, Peace Corps gives us no monetary support, so we have the option of using this tool, Peace Corps Partnership, to help raise money. These projects are being undertaken by volunteers who have integrated into their communities, live among the populous and have chosen the project with the help and support of host country nationals. I strongly encourage you to check out this website, since in my view (biased as it may be) I think that these grassroots Peace Corps volunteer projects are some of the best places your money can go to.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homebody

In the United States, the word “homebody” is often used with a negative connotation. I have heard it used to describe (in varying degrees) someone who chooses to not leave their house, doesn’t socialize, lacks the desire to explore and learn new things…basically someone with no ¨life.¨

In Nicaragua, the opposite is true.

Nicaraguans have a word - vago/a - which is used for people who are constantly out and about in the street; traveling, walking, chatting…basically being anywhere but their home. If one is called a vago it is not a compliment. It is usually a term used for men, since women are rarely vagas. (They are too busy doing chores of the home).
The family home in Nicaragua is really the foundation for life here. Often up to 12 people live in a single house, and that is where you can find most of the family members all day, unless they happen to be at school, work, or running an errand to the nearby store to buy a few eggs.
On any given night, anywhere from two to five people sleep in any one room, or even in any one bed. Nicaraguans find it odd that anyone would ever want to sleep alone. A fellow volunteer in Nicaragua told me that her neighbors were worried about her when she recently moved into her own house. ¨The who do you sleep with? ¨ little neighbor girls asked her anxiously.
Houses here are like the worn clothing that Nicaraguans wear: used in multiple generations, washed frequently, but ultimately very poor. The house and its contents are well known and well cared for. Houses are small and the amount of people living in them large. These small spaces have to be maintained with the organizational skills and dedication required to maintain a spaceship I would imagine. The inventory of the house (amount of food, number of chairs, amount of laundry to be washed, how many brooms/mops there are and where they are located, the amount of dish soap left…) is known by most members (the women) of the house. Wrath will ensue if the mother of the house realizes that a pound of beans or a piece of cheese, or something more valuable such as meat or fruit have gone missing. The day’s consumption by every single member of the house will then have to be retraced as she searches for how this could have gone awry. Who took it? Who got greedy? Food is a commodity in many areas of the country and people in my site are not quite as generous with it as the Latin stereotype would have us believe.
In my host family’s house in any one day, every dish and utensil is used (often more than once), every surface touched, cleaned, and used…Every chair sat on, every floor swept, walked on and swept again. The common areas are always being rearranged for a different use. One day the living room serves as a mini-movie theatre for Spanish soap operas, the next it is a workspace to make piñatas, and the next, 30 chairs have suddenly appeared for a neighborhood committee meeting. There is constant movement in this limited space.
When there are rare moments of rest, rather than choosing to leave the home to socialize or participate in community events, the family settles themselves in their finest plastic chairs to cultivate the fine art of watching. Nicaraguans are expert sitters and watchers. They observe the world going by them, usually from their porch or from inside their house with an eye out the closest door or window. Friends are greeted, food bought from walking vendors, weather commented on, and gossip exchanged - all from the comfort of one’s own home. Why leave your chair when there is a man who will come right to your door selling fresh vegetables, warm tamales, or even children’s clothing? Why be a vago when all the people you really want to socialize with (your family) are all right here?
But this culture of homebody-ness also brings annoyances. Every word, conversation, argument, piece of gossip, or question uttered in the house is heard by all members of said house. Walls are thin if nonexistent and everyone knows everything that is going on in everyone else’s lives. Privacy is a foreign word here, but it is not missed. A large part of how Nicaraguans define themselves is based upon their family. It is not seen as intruding when, for example, a 24-year-old man’s mother demands to see his cell phone to read the text messages exchanged by him and his girlfriend the previous night (yes, this happened in my host family). Why not? He might think. My mother has just as much of a say in this relationship as I do…
I´ve been struggling with this homebody concept, and sometimes I feel as if the house is suffocating me. (I have yet to find my own place to move into). There are only so many times you can look at the same people, walk over the same surfaces and discuss the same topics (how many beans will we buy today? What time do you think it will rain today?) before you can begin to go a little stir-crazy. Although hey, I am from Alaska. I´m used to being pent-up indoors for literally months at a time avoiding sub-zero temperatures, but at least then I didn´t have a choice in that matter. Here, where the weather is in the high 80s F every day, I feel guilty when I´m not out enjoying it.
When I am inside my home, I often ¨fake¨ my homebody-ness to blend-in; while pretending to sit and watch life go by, I am internally planning a training on HIV/AIDS in my head, or I steal away to a corner to read a book while they think I am napping. This undercover productivity keeps me sane.
Right now, I am at the local high school using their computers to investigate some health statistics and write in my blog. I´m going home for lunch in a few minutes, and will probably return to see the mother of the house and her daughter seated in the exact same positions that they were in when I left them four hours ago. We´ll all be happy about our respective morning’s activities, but of course for different reasons.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Volleyball: same game, new country



It’s been a while since I have been able to write an entry. This has been due to a few things, some good and some bad. For one, I was very sick at the beginning of June (on my birthday nonetheless) and while being treated, was in the capital of Managua where the Peace Corps office and our doctors are located. Being sick is never fun and this was augmented by the fact that I am in a foreign country. Although I’m careful about what I eat (not eating street food, only purified water…) I’ve had parasites twice and this recent sickness was a bacterial infection. Let’s just say that when you become a Peace Corps volunteer, your recent bowel movements or lack thereof become a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation. The good news for my lack of blogging is that in my site I’ve been almost too busy (relatively speaking…this is Nicaragua) to blog. I’ve been “in-site” for two months now and I’ve started a youth group, have begun giving classes in the high school on health related topics, and have been facilitating meetings of a pregnant women’s group. I’m also busy getting to know my host family more, learning how to cook some regional dishes, finding out the best place to buy tomatoes, what times the bus passes through to go to the capital city, etc. Although I’m struggling with the Nicaragua work ethic and its many differences from my own, I have been feeling satisfied with my progress.
I’ve also been busy because for the past month and a half I’ve joined an intramural volleyball team! One afternoon, I was walking back to my house from the health center and saw a bunch of girls around my age setting up a volleyball net. I played volleyball in high school and on an intramural team in college, and since I’ve been dying for outdoor exercise and some stimulation, I immediately asked if I could play with them and before I knew it, I was a member of team “Gemini” and attending daily two hour practices. There are about five women’s teams and six men’s teams in the city intramural league, and we play two games every weekend. Our practices are held at a coffee production plant in town. Since coffee is not in-season, large concrete lots which are usually used to dry out the beans now lay unused. We’ve rigged up a net using old tires filled with cement to hold it down, and we have two balls to practice with.
Nicaraguans can sometimes be known for their tranquil and non-hurried demeanor, but in volleyball it’s a different story. Although it’s almost certain that practice will begin about 45 minutes later than the said start time, we do work hard. There is even a man who comes a few times a week and acts as our “coach” running drills. Our team also has a little following of young children who come to the coffee plant while we’re practicing to cheer us on while we run laps or fetch our lost balls. They are there every day without fail. Despite the exercise, my main motivation to join the team was to meet more people in the town, and basically get more into a routine in my site. I love recognizing those girls when I walk down the street. “Penny!” they will yell, “See you at practice tonight!” Inadvertently, being on the team has also made other townspeople more aware of me, and become a way to meet people. I am often approached in the corner store, the cyber café or the health center as someone asks “Don’t you play volleyball?”
Although it’s been a rewarding experience, it has also been challenging. The first few games my team played, we lost horribly. We didn’t have confianza or trust in each other. I think this was mainly due to the fact that I was the “new kid on the block” and rather than treating me as just one of the girls, they often tip-toed around me, refusing to get angry if I made a mistake, or sometimes the opposite – looking at every move I made as if it were done under a microscope, judging me more severely than they did the other girls. It was and sometimes still is stressful. Already I feel like I am living in a fishbowl in this town, and I didn’t want to attract more attention. I just want to be accepted. However, as my brother told me the other day, being totally accepted by my host country is probably impossible. I am “fundamentally different” because of my home culture. Although that makes sense, I still am going to try my best to integrate into my community.
As time has gone on however, the girls have gotten to know me more and have opened up. They treat me more like one of them (although not completely), and last weekend they even chose me to say the ritualistic pre-game prayer (a big honor). Although I may still be treated differently by other teams (I am always the target they aim the ball towards) I am feeling more accepted on my team. When we put on our yellow and white uniforms that say “Team Gemini” on the front and our names and numbers on the back, I can’t help but feel a little camaraderie. And although games can be annoying - sometimes they try and “protect” me I think by not giving me as much playing time as the others - I am not giving up and I am continuing to put myself “out there.”
We’ve started winning games now. A lot. Team Gemini who was once the underdog because of lack of team spirit and cooperation is now beginning to get it together. And every day at our practices I am a part of that. The twelve of us cheer each other on, scold each other, and work together. The line between the Nicaraguan girls and the ¨gringa¨ is slowly disappearing. Teamwork is a word that often doesn’t need translation.
The intramural league championships occur in August during the Patron Saint festivals of my town, and I know for many of the girls this will be their highlight of the summer if not year. Although being on the team can make me frustrated, singled-out and sometimes angry, overall I’m happy to feel like I’m part of something here. It makes me feel like I’m an actual community member. And that’s what Peace Corps tells us to do: become a community member first then from there do your work. Although complete integration or acceptance is not possible, I’m not going to give up - I’ll at least try for some teamwork.