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.


AKgirlie said...

Oh Penny! It's wonderful to read about your first week. I am thinking and praying for your adjustment, and can't wait to hear more. Know that you are missed. I love you! Bri

Cassandra said...

Just think if all Americans understood the living conditions of people in developing countries. The experience would spill over into both our domestic and international policy. Hang in there Penny!