Tuesday, June 30, 2009


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.