Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nicaragua Week 1

I have only one word to say right now: WOW. I have only been in Nicaragua one week, and so much has happened. I think it’s the busiest week I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would. P.Corps Nicaragua likes to call itself "The Ivy League of Peace Corps," and they’re not kidding. In so many ways, this is a no-nonsense, get-to-work job, but at the same time, we have freedom to organize our own activities during training and learn about the culture and people.

Last week we arrived in the capital of Managua – just a 2 ½ hour flight from Miami! There are 21 volunteers total in my group of Community Health Care Volunteers. We stayed in a hotel the first two days, receiving some training there, last minute vaccines, and getting a (as we liked to call it), an easy introduction to "rustic living" – aka no hot water, bugs everywhere (mainly ants), little air conditioning, off and on running water, etc. Then, we were tested in our language level. I was placed in the Advanced Group, along with four other girls. We were then assigned our "training towns" based on those groups. I will be living in the small "pueblo" for the next three months with my language group, undergoing technical, cultural and Spanish language training. The town is about a 45 minute drive south of Managua, and is home to about 40,000 people (so they say), but you can walk across the entire town in 15 minutes…

I am living alone with a host family here. There are six family members (grandmother, 60 year old wife and husband, their 22 and 33 year old daughters, and the 33 year old’s daughter who is 4 years old). Their "house" consists of two main structures with a yard/patio/parking lot area in the middle. My room is the largest (I think it’s required by Peace Corps that we have our own rooms that are secure, separate, etc.) and one big room that is divided by curtains, etc. which holds all of the women’s beds in one room and then the father sleeps separated by a curtain. Also, the bathroom is in that room, along with the kitchen area and their sitting room, which consists of a few plastic lawn chairs and an old (but functioning!) television. The family’s main source of income is a small "pulperia," or "corner store" in the front of their house, where they sell beans, rice, t-shirts, shampoo, toilet paper, etc. The 80 year-old Grandmother or the mother mans the store most of the day. The father had a brain tumor from what I gather, so he is not mentally able to work. I think that is part of the reason why my family is so poor. After seeing the other four host family homes in my pueblo, I realize that mine is by far the most poor. They barely have silverware. However, the 22 year old goes to the University here to be a Psychologist, so I think that is where a lot of their money is going.

My bed and mosquito net

Although the living conditions are not "superb," and the adjustment was (and still is) a big shock, I am slowly becoming accustomed to washing my clothes by hand, boiling my water before I drink it, using bleach to clean my vegetables, being dusty all the time because my room has no glass in the windows and the door goes directly outside, and being prepared for the running water to go out at any time. The thing that keeps me here, and keeps be focused on my work is the family I live with, and the people I meet at places like the "Centro de Salud" (Health Center). My family is amazing- they are so friendly and understanding. As we gain "confianza," (trust and respect of each other), they open up more and more with me, and I’m enjoying spending time with the 4 year old. Today I taught her how to wash her hands properly with antibacterial hand soap. She usually just goes to the bathroom wherever she pleases, and doesn’t always remember to wash her hands. Hopefully my good habits of cleanliness are rubbing off on her. I also taught her a bit of Yoga today

They are also teaching me things; the difference between the MANY ways of preparing banana/plantains…. How to make "gallo pinto" (red beans and rice), and the meaning of the Patron Saint festival dances. The city’s Patron Saint is Saint Sebastian, and the day we arrived here was the kickoff of four days of partying which lasted all night and all day. And as luck had it, there just happened to be HUGE street dances happening right outside my window every night. The first four nights I slept very little, but it worked well to get me used to the noise and lifestyle here. There is always noise at night; dogs barking, noisy motorcycles, whistles of the security guards who watch the neighborhoods and whistle to warn the others of danger… After the first night, I was able to fall asleep just fine to the noisy Reggaeton music, salsa, merengue, and booming voice of the DJ on his microphone….

Traditional costumes for dancing. The masks are supposed to make fun of the Spanish who colonized the area.

Today, the entire P.Corps Health Care group went to Managua for more training. For our lunch break, we were driven to a nearby mall which reminded me of a normal mid-sized U.S. city mall. There were stores like Payless Shoes, United Colors of Benetton, Department Stores, Quiznos Subs, and McDonalds…. It made me realize that those things are accessible here in Nicarauga – but we haven’t seen them in our host families, etc. because their cost, while "cheap" for us, perhaps, is actually extremely expensive for most Nicaraguans. The only people who shop and eat at this mall are the rich. The majority of Nicaraguans cannot even afford apples, let alone a brand new pair of shoes… I also have seen this inequality in the Nicaragua health system during our training activities. There are those who can pay for private medical service, who have insurance. The others however, have to wait in day-long lines at the local Health Center, stepping around human waste, dogs, crying children, pregnant 11 year-olds, and tired nurses just to be seen. For this reason, not many actually go to their local Health Center unless it is an emergency. While patients wait, they become an audience for "charlas" or educational talks, which P.Corps volunteers/nurses, etc. give regarding hand-washing, diarrhea (a leading killer of children), or Malaria. Next week, my training group should start giving some of these "charlas."

Our first meeting of our youth group.
Right now, I’m still in a little bit of shock, but the support system of the other volunteers in my group of "Nica 49" (the 49th P.Corps group in Nicaragua), has really helped. We are all going through the same stressors: new host families, lack of our normal creature comforts we enjoy in the U.S., communicating in a new language/culture, and trying to learn about the health system of Nicaragua. It’s very frustrating at times, and I think that some in my group are already considering going back to the U.S. (for a variety of reasons), but I know I will stay here. After meeting children like my little host sister, and seeing how her face lights up when I teach her how to brush her teeth properly, or teach her how to exercise with jumping jacks, I realize that two years isn’t such a large sacrifice to do my part and help others.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I can die happy now

Well, "Christmas break '08" has officially drawn to a close (almost). I'm at my final stop of Sitka before taking off for Miami, then Nicaragua with Peace Corps. I've had an exciting whirlwind of a break, using my four weeks of "down time" to visit practically every person important to me before I take off for Central America for the next 27 months.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Mid-December found me on an Amtrak train for the first time taking the 9 hour trip from Washington, DC to South Carolina (see previous blog post).

From SC, I went home to Sitka, Alaska, but not before being delayed in Seattle, WA overnight due to their horrible pre-Christmas snow storm... I had a busy week at home; working at an outdoor gear store during the day (and perfecting my present-wrapping skills), and hanging out with my brother, his wife, and their 11 month old baby who were visiting from Kotzebue, AK. My 89 year-old Grandma was also in town from Portland, OR to see us and the baby.
From Sitka, I accompanied my Grandma back down to Portland where I hung out for a week. I got to see two of my good friends- Katie from Sitka, and one of my old roomies, Bri from Fairbanks. I spent the week with them being a nomad; sleeping on couches, showering when I could, and hitting up happy hours and shopping in-between. We had a good New Years Eve altogether with a big gang of Bri's friends from Ketchikan, AK. We also enjoyed Portland's wonderful vegetarian and vegan breakfast scene. On New Years Day we all went hunting for a good breakfast spot, and were not too surprised to see that all the ones in East Portland had lines out the door... We finally hit-up a place called Paradox, which was essentially vegan....yum! My favorite breakfast place came a few days later- Genie's Cafe (I think that's how you spell it). I tried cheese grits for the first time, and had wonderful sweet potato french toast. Hey-if you're leaving the USA for the next two years, you've gotta live it up with American food while you still can! (Or, at least that's what I've been told to do...) The rice/beans ("gallo pinto") and plantains of Nicaragua sound pretty good to me though...

My most spontaneous moment of the Portland trip came when I decided to get my eyebrow pierced in an awesome tattoo/piercing shop called Robot. Bri was there along with her sister getting a nose and cartilage piercing respectively, and after hanging out for a while waiting for them, I couldn't stand it anymore and had to get my own (after checking with some returned Nicaraguan P.Corps volunteers first to see if it was okay in-country). It didn't hurt or bleed much at all! I think it's because I'm so used to tweezing my eyebrows... :)

After Portland, on January 8th, I made my way to Granby, Colorado to visit my family's old Chilean exchange student, Paula, who we hosted in 2001-02. This is her second winter working at the SolVista Ski Lodge in Granby, on a student work visa. There's about 100 Peruvians, Chileans and Argentinians working there (or at least it seemed like it). I hadn't seen Paula in six years, but she'd kept in good touch with our family, and I had such good memories with her, I really wanted to see her again. Granby is a two hour drive northwest of Denver, and at 8,000 feet above sea level (I could feel the elevation a bit the first day). I spoke nothing but Spanish for those four days with all the other South Americans who worked at the lodge. They made fun of my accent from Spain (the Spanish "lisp" certain words), and I made fun of the Argentinians habit of turning "ll" into a "j" sound, ex. aja instead of alla. While Paula worked, I got a free lift pass and signed up for my first ski lesson! I had a two hour private lesson, and then I was on my own!! It was pretty nerve-racking, even though I was only on the "green" aka "easy" trails. I fell a few times - most of them on purpose since I was going too fast, and I was still working on slowing down properly. No big injuries though (my life did flash before my eyes a few times as I went over some bumps, or narrowly avoided a tree...if not my entire life, then at least I imagined my Peace Corps experience in crutches...) The nice thing about skiing alone, however, is that no one sees you fall! Except if you count the few dozen people who passed above me on the ski lift when I took a spill right beneath them... At least the big snow goggles blocked my face from being seen, so I could be recognized later in the lodge...

Paula and her friends treated me to some real South American hospitality, and I enjoyed seeing Colorado "through" their eyes. For many, it was their first time to the US, or even out of their country! And they were missing out on a hot and sunny summer back home to come do hard work teaching kids how to ski/snowboard, rent gear, or cook food in a frozen tiny town... And they loved every minute of it- who could blame them, though? They got off work around 4 pm, and the dorm-style housing they lived in was perfect for partying and socializing after-hours...

After Granby, I had to change some of my flight information back home to Sitka- and to make a long story short, I ended up having an overnight layover in Fairbanks!! (It was either Fairbanks or Seattle). Since a lot of my college friends are still in Fairbanks, I was psyched! I hadn't been back to "the banks" since graduation in May, and didn't think I'd see those friends for a looong time. I called one of my old roommates, Lexi, and she was able to get the day-off, so I spent the night at her house, and spent the day with her-running around to my favorite Fairbanks coffee shops (where I randomly saw my Spanish university advisor! we talked Nicaragua and future travel plans), drove out to North Pole, AK to take some pictures at the "Santa Claus House," and even Fred Meyer! (The Fairbanks social scene... :) I got to see a couple good friends, and spend some quality time with Lexi and discus our respective life plans (which are pretty darn ambitious right now)-I swear, that girl will be a news anchor on a big network soon if she keeps it up. After a very bumpy ride from Fairbanks to Sitka (some schools were closed due to high winds even), I'm finally back to Sitka- where I started my journey. The excitement never stops, however, and I'm busying myself tackling the enormous mounds of my stuff that seems to have grown exponentially since the last time I saw it... I'm doing some big runs to the thrift store with all of my junk, trying to consolidate and organize. Peace Corps sent me a list the other day of things they recommend I bring (headlamp, money belt), so I'm making sure all my boxes are checked, my power-of-attorney is signed over to my parents, oh- and that my hair is cut one last time by my favorite hairdresser :)

I take off on Monday for Miami for Peace Corps "staging", the inauguration is on Tuesday, and I leave for Nicaragua Wednesday!
As I like to say- if a rolling stone gathers no moss, I think I'm a pretty shiny clean rock!

As I prepare to leave though, I'm looking back on this past month and I am so grateful for all the luck that has come my way- randomly seeing my good friends Tiffany and Jake in the SeaTac airport, being able to go back to Fairbanks one last day, being able to go to Portland and Colorado to see good friends and family. As my friend Abby told me today, "Well, now that you've seen me, you can pretty much die happy, huh?" I laughed- I guess she was right though. I've seen the main people in my life and my heart this past month as I criss-crossed the US, and although it was bittersweet saying goodbye, I hope these people realize how important they are to me, and no matter where I go or what language I speak, they will always be my shining lights-keeping me connected to what's real and important in life.