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 aƱos. 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


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.
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…