Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Better Oven

This past week, week number five of training, I had the opportunity to visit a current Peace Corps (PC) volunteer here in Nicaragua. The visit was supposed to serve many purposes: allow us to see what sort of projects PC Health Volunteers are involved in, their struggles and successes, what they spend their days doing…basically what life as a PC volunteer is really like. I visited a girl who has been placed in the department of Nueva Segovia which is in the north of Nicaragua, next to the border with Honduras. The trip was about seven hours total in bus from the town I am currently living right outside of Managua.

The buses w
ere an interesting experience to say the least. They were packed full of mothers, babies, children, farm workers, students…and then almost the same number of vendors as there were passengers who walked up and down the aisle (more like squeezed in and out of miniscule spaces they could find) selling mandarin oranges, salty crackers, empanadas, apples, and water in plastic baggies. None of the food was “safe” enough for me to want to buy it. I’m a little more paranoid now that I have recently been diagnosed with parasites. The bus did not stop at all in their long trips of up to four hours, so I didn’t drink or eat anything except for the multiple medications I’ve been given to kill the parasites (it’s a 13 day process to kill the adults and then the eggs).
I really enjoyed Nuev
a Segovia and my few days there with the volunteer who goes by “Lucia.” The landscape reminded me a lot like the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. There were green mountains, pine trees, rivers, and even rain! It was a nice break from the dust, wind and noise I have become used to further south in Nicaragua.

Lucia’s town has 6,500 and is surrounded by many smaller communities, and there are also three Peace Corps agriculture volunteers who leave close by. Lucia takes advantage of this to organize fruit and vegetable markets with them - involving local farmers, and she also helps out with a PC agriculture project where volunteers help Nicaraguans make hornos mejorados or “better ovens.” These ovens are made of brick and mud with a large steel barrel inside. A fire is built underneath the barrel, and the food is placed inside. Hot air circulates around the barrel to evenly cook the food. The oven is “better” because it uses less wood, and also has a chimney to disperse the smoke. Most stoves and ovens in Nicaragua use burning wood and the kitchen area is constantly filled with tear-causing smoke. Lucia told me that many Nicaraguan women have small hairs on their eyeballs as a result of all this smoke exposure.

One afternoon, Lucia and I decided to help two laborers make one of these ovens in the h
ouse of a woman who has wanted one for a long time. She bought the materials (barrel, bricks, steel rods) and paid the two laborers 50 c√≥rdobas each (USD $2.50) for the day of work. When Lucia and I arrived, the men had already built the base for the oven, and were working on constructing the layers of bricks (about nine in total) which would surround the barrel. Trying to stay clean was useless, and soon we had mud everywhere – in our shoes, on our faces, in our hair… I would have taken more pictures of the process and we progressed, but my mud-caked hands made that a little difficult.

With four people, the work went fast. Soon we were ready to place the barrel inside, and then we started the more careful work of ensuring that there was always at least a two inch space in between the barrel and the brick to make sure air could circulate. As we started to curve the bricks inward to cover the barrel, we had to measure each side to make sure they were even, and use pieces of steel rods to balance the bricks on. Each of the four of us had different duties. One man made the mud (yes, there is actually a method to making mud. You first build a mini-volcano out of dirt and fill the middle with water and then you slowly cave in the sides of the volcano to mix in the water with a shovel). The other laborer, his son, was the brick-cutter. He cut the bricks into the different shapes we often needed: triangles, round shapes… He did this using a machete knife which is apparently something that every respectable Nicaraguan man with at least an ounce of manliness knows how to operate quite skillfully. Lucia and I were the ones who were making the layers- first placing a layer of thick light brown mud, then fitting the bricks, then sticking more mud in between each brick. The barrel that was used had previously held gasoline, then beans (hopefully it was washed in between…) and the chimney was made out of cement and we fitted it on top and it was held in place by of course, more bricks and mud.

It took six hours total to finish the oven, and I think that was relatively fast since there were so many of us, and all three of them had been through the process before. After eight days of drying, the oven will be ready to use! For all our efforts, we were given a free lunch of rice, beans, and a sweet oatmeal-like drink. I felt extremely satisfied to have done something with my hands that had a real impact on someone’s life. It was obvious that the woman we made the oven for spent most of her day in the kitchen, and she was already talking about how she would use her oven for: bread, chicken….she even was joking that she could squeeze an entire pig in the barrel and cook it too!

I can’t wait to return to that village to visit Lucia in the future and go see the finished and working oven and try some of the bread made in it. Although this “better oven” project wasn’t necessarily in my official “sector” of health, I really enjoyed getting dirty and helping people in a tangible way. Sometimes, as a health volunteer, you may wonder if people are really listening to all your educational talks, or really taking your advice about family planning, malaria prevention, and HIV/AIDS. With this project, I really felt like a real PC volunteer. This was the sort of project I had always imagined volunteers doing – getting dirty out in the country alongside host country nationals.

While I can’t always play in the mud every day as a health volunteer, hopefully I will have a chance, like Lucia to work with volunteers and projects from other sectors. Maybe I will start a community garden to improve nutrition. Something I really took away from my volunteer visit was that every volunteer’s service; their projects, their counterparts, their living situation, how they choose to spend their time, etc. is as diverse as every volunteer. I can focus on maternal health, HIV/AIDS, adolescents, parents, nutrition… My service, which will officially begin in mid-April, can be however I choose to make it. Hopefully there will be a little dirt and manual labor thrown in there to make my service “better” as well.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Day in the Life...

To give a glimpse of what life is like here, and what I see/hear/do every day, I thought I would go through aspects of daily life piece by piece and describe what it is like to live in Nicaragua:

Food: One word: carbohydrates. All meals contain rice, potatoes, tortillas, or white bread. Simple starches abound, as do plantains and bananas. Bananas used to be my favorite fruit, but I think that could very well change at the end of these two years. Did I mention that bananas and plantains are constipating?? Well, they are. Nicaraguans also like to fry everything. People here mainly opt for the cheaper food options, and those aren’t always the healthiest. I have yet to see wheat bread, or a child eating something other than saltines or cookies for a snack. As a vegetarian though, I’ve been pretty happy: beans, mangoes, papaya, melon, tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkin, squash… My host family has been very accommodating; some families have no fruit or veggies in sight from what I’ve heard. Despite Nicaragua being a prime coffee growing spot, instant coffee is what everyone drinks. I can’t describe how much I am craving a 20 oz. drip coffee from the US… I have been dreaming about coffee beans (perhaps effects from our Malaria medication which induces dreams). Lunch is the biggest meal of the day here, and food is always prepared by the women (including me!)

Weather: Not as hot as I had imagined, actually. I think it has been somewhere in the mid to high 80s F most days. The one thing that I cannot stand however is the WIND. The wind has been so intense the past few weeks that boats have been advised to not navigate on Lake Nicaragua, and some small cars have had accidents crossing long stretches of freeway. I’m not sure what speed the winds have been exactly, but in Alaska terminology, they are at least “gale force.” The ground here is so dry that dust, or “polvo” is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. In my ears, in my eyes, my hair, in my suitcase, on my clothes, on my books, on my shoes… Cleaning it all up makes no sense, because a few minutes later, it will be covered again. My room has lots of wind and polvo blowing in and out since there is no glass over the window, and a large space between the roof and the walls. When I go running, going against the wind is also a challenge, and I’m afraid of being hit in the eye with a large rock (yes, it happens). I think I’ve already lost a sock to the wind. The clothespin holding it on the line lost the battle and I think my sock is now in the neighbor’s yard.

Clothes: As I hinted above, clothes are washed by hand and hung dry. My host family washed my clothes the first week, but now I have chosen to take over. These Nicaraguan women don’t know the meaning of “delicate cycle.” We use a big bar of blue soap to wash, which smells sort of like some sort of ointment you would put on a rash… The other day, I took a towel out of my suitcase that I had brought from the States, and it smelled like Tide and Downy, and I almost broke down…haha Not really…. I actually really enjoy washing clothes by hand. You can pay attention to where there are stains and make sure to get them out, and it’s really much more satisfying than simply pushing a button on a machine. The outdoor sink area is also a great place to hang-out for 45 minutes washing my clothes from the week. It has a great view of the sky, and I can see all the stars if I wash them at night. I have never seen stars as clearly as I can here. Also, a few notes about Nicaraguan clothes. The majority of the clothes are the t-shirts that didn’t sell at American second-hand stores. It’s actually pretty fun walking around and seeing the different t-shirts which often say something hilarious in English (“Best Grandmother Ever” on a teenage boy, “Made in America,” “Harvard University” on a homeless man…) My host family also has a mini-store in the front of their house, and they sell some of these old second-hand t-shirts. I went through and folded all of them the other day and about died of laughter. There were lots of University t-shirts, 5 and 10K run t-shirts from some random NGO in Vermont, church club t-shirts from Ohio, a breast cancer fundraiser one from Florida… But the funny ones were a few with words in English: “Naked and Hungry” (???) and another that had a picture of a rocking chair, then a caption that read, “I rock.” If I could take pictures of these people when I see them, I would start a collection.

Sleep: I am exhausted all the time here. I don’t think Nicaraguans ever sleep. It is such a contrast to Spain where getting up at 8 am was “the crack of dawn” and the siesta nap was almost mandatory. Here, rising at 6 am is normal, if not sleeping in a little bit. Some people only have running water for a few hours very early in the morning, so they (aka the women) are up from 3 to 5 am collecting water for the day. There is so much to do right when you get up: collect water for the day, heat water for coffee, sweep, start breakfast, shower… My family also rents out their large empty lot as a parking lot for neighbors, so they are up to let the first car in at 6 am. I get up at 5:45 usually to go running before P.Corps class at 8. No one takes naps here, not even my four-year-old little host sister. I crash at usually around 8:30 or 9 pm. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was in elementary school. All the other P.Corps trainees do the same. One of the things that I am SO happy I brought with me is earplugs. They are a necessity here since the street outside is filled nightly with honking, noisy cars, loud music from the neighbors and passing cars, fireworks, barking dogs, and worst of all – whistles. There are night watchmen here that patrol the streets all night long to watch out for suspicious activity. They each carry a whistle and they blow it in a certain pattern to communicate with the other watchman ALL NIGHT LONG. And they are not shy about it. I can’t count the number of times I have been woken up (earplugs and everything) at 4 am to the sound of an obnoxious whistle going off directly outside my window. Looking on the bright side, I guess I know my street is safe…

P.Corps Training: We are about to enter week four of training, and the language “facilitators” that were giving my language level classes, are now leaving us on our own (yes!) We now get to plan our own weekly schedules, and as long as we still get done what we are supposed to (a certain number of educational talks in the health center, schools, and with our youth group) then we are on our own! It’s going to be really nice to have our own time to work on assignments, do readings, and explore the town. Today we had a large P.Corps session on culture shock. I think that the culture shock I’m experiencing here is much different than what I experienced in Spain. The initial “honeymoon period” did not exist for me here in Nicaragua – it was more of an initial shock. I have slowly been adapting ever since, and am feeling pretty comfortable and happy in my routine so far. I know the far greater and more intense transition will come when I finally am assigned to my site and settle in for two years…

Fun fact No. 1: today I met a fellow Alaskan here in Nicaragua! She is also a P.Corps volunteer who has been here for some time. She is an environmental education volunteer from south central Alaska. Small world! Fun fact No. 2: Valentines Day here is not just for lovers, it’s known as “Love and Friendship Day.” Much more inclusive holiday. Hasta pronto…