Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rain, rain, go away....

Rainy season has arrived in full force in Nicaragua. The six month-long season began in May and has been making my life pretty miserable. The rain has been falling so intensely that I feel like Nicaragua is being water-boarded. This year’s hurricane season is supposed to be unusually active and a few tropical storms have already been in the area. Today we’re enjoying a rare break of hot sun and the air is thick with humidity. My backyard is saturated with water – every step brings a squish or a splash of mud up onto my ankles. Rain fell for about ten days straight when Hurricane Agatha was hitting nearby in Guatemala and Honduras. School was cancelled, people didn’t go to work, and the electricity went off and on all day long. A sink hole was even created in the middle of Guatemala City (see photo below):
During the ten days of downpour, people huddled in their homes and ran from building to building, cowering under umbrellas. Children were still sent out to buy tortillas and cheese at the nearest store, and they scampered through the puddles wearing slippery flip-flops. The ground, like an over-saturated sponge, stopped soaking up the water after a couple days and soon the water just skidded off the surface. The problem in Nicaragua is that there is nowhere for the runoff to go. Streets flood with thick, muddy water; the rudimentary “ditch” system (aka the water runs out wherever you dig a ditch in the mud in front of your house) is unable to handle the volume. Rivers swell and overflow, taking boulders, branches and roots with them – carrying them meters downriver. (below: an overflowing river and a flooded well).

My house (which my landlady advised me has the tendency to flood during hard rains) did not flood too much, mainly due to my excellent ditch-digging abilities, if I do say so myself. Before the rains came I put on my thick, black rain boots and devoted an afternoon to digging out the water’s runoff path so it could run more freely, carting buckets full of mud down the street to dump in an empty lot. Needless to say it was a hard day and made me wish my Dad was around to help me. There are quite a few things that I periodically have to do around my house: kill spiders, replace light bulbs, cut tree branches, re-hammer nails, etc. that I wish I had a “man” around to help me with. I usually suck it up, or go to my neighbors and put on the dumb-blonde act, hoping Don Silvio will come rescue me from manual labor.

After those ten days of intense rain, the first day of sun felt like a breath of fresh air. Windows were opened, days’ worth of laundry was hung up, and people finally ventured out of their houses to assess the damage. Some newly paved roads to villages had been overtaken by overflowing rivers and covered in mud and rocks. Newly planted bean and corn plants had been drowned or washed away – the complete opposite of what happened last year when we faced a drought. Some adobe homes had collapsed, or been filled with mud. I saw wells that had been covered in mud, and people were struggling to dig them out. The national news reported that several people had perished in the rains: they had been washed away in rivers or their homes had collapsed on them.

Another Peace Corps volunteer whose community is nearby mine recently had trouble getting back to her town by bus. The rains had swelled a large river they had to cross, creating strong rapids that stormed over the cement blocks that normally served as a bridge. Ten buses and a couple hundred people were stranded on either side of the river waiting for it to go down. My friend weighed the decision whether or not she would cross –she had never seen water that high and was genuinely scared. When a bus finally did make the first attempt, the water went up to the windows. It was a miracle it didn’t get swept sideways, but she decided against crossing and came back to my site to stay the night and wait it out. A good decision, I would say (below see a photo of the river and the "bridge" with buses waiting to cross, and a video of the first bus crossing).

Although I grew up in a temperate rainforest in Southeast Alaska, this rain is different. There is no escape: no warm, watertight house to run into, no gutter system, no ocean for the rain to wash away in. My town is in a valley and I feel like the rain is slowly filling it up, day by day. Well, July marks the half-way point in the rainy season. Hopefully we’re over the worst. In the meantime, I go everywhere with my trusty umbrella.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jillian ¨loses it¨

Recently while I was sick with a bacterial infection and Peace Corps was putting me up in a hotel in Managua (aka: an air-conditioned oasis with wireless internet, hot showers and cable TV), I watched an episode of a program called “Losing it with Jillian.” Jillian Michaels, a personal trainer who got her start on the popular show, “The Biggest Loser,” is now starring in her own show, trying to change America’s bad diet and exercise habits one person at a time. Her no-fooling -around and drill sergeant style has gained her quite a reputation, and in the episode that I watched, she was on a Yavapai-Apache Indian reservation trying to mobilize the “nation” to fight diabetes.

It’s no secret that type II diabetes is a large problem among the Alaska Native and Indian population of the U.S., and Jillian seemed motivated to single-handedly eradicate it. She had started working with a handful of obese Indian women; doing daily workouts and helping them change their diet. The camera panned across a hot desert spotted with cacti, then you saw these large women come into view, trotting obediently alongside Jillian. Their faces strained in effort as they lifted heavy weights to do squats. Jillian’s strong voice barked at them, “no giving up!”
Jillian and the women organized a town hall meeting to discuss diabetes with a guest doctor who specialized in the disease. They walked house to house handing out flyers the day of the event inviting the whole reservation. When the meeting time came however, only a handful of participants were in the seats. “I just don’t know what to do to get these people to listen!” she complained.

The next day, Jillian was walking with one Indian woman who was her main “change agent,” and began to break down about how difficult her challenge seemed to be. Jillian’s goal was to first change this one woman, and then try to change the Indian nation. The Indian woman had a four year old son who was already obese. “Why are people so apathetic?!” Jillian implored, “I mean, do you even want to change?!” The Indian woman walked submissively by her side with her eyes downcast. “You’re feeding your child JUNK!” Jillian continued, “It isn’t even food! What is so hard about saying no?? Is it hard to say no to heart disease, to diabetes, to cholesterol, to a doughnut? To what?!” In Jillian’s mind, these people were voluntarily killing themselves through their lifestyles and it was like she was flashing a big red stop sign in front of them, but they were just ignoring it.

An “Aha!” moment came when the Indian woman finally spoke up. She was in tears. “I don’t know how to change!” she began. “No one every taught me. This is all I know. You need to help me, teach me. It’s hard!” Jillian finally softened her tough demeanor and resolved to help the woman and to try and help the community. They continued on their walk.

Watching this episode, the other Peace Corps volunteers sharing my hotel room and I were dumbstruck. Observing Jillian trying to effect change in this Indian reservation was so similar to our experience here in Nicaragua working in community health behavior change. We arrive with excellent tools and resources and so many ideas and aspirations; we are going to actually DO something here! We are going to change lives for the better! Then reality hits. Behavior change is hard. People may not show up to meetings, they may tell you they want to change, but they may continue their old habits. One thing is the knowledge that a behavior is wrong, but another is helping to motivate actual action to change that behavior. Watching Jillian was like watching a poor, misguided, greenhorn Peace Corps volunteer. “With an attitude like that, you won’t last long here!” my friends and I laughed as we watched Jillian fret and complain. It was also hard to see the Indian woman break down emotionally – she did have a strong desire to be healthier and change her habits, but when you’ve grown up learning certain behaviors your whole life, that change will not occur overnight or be easy.

Condom use, diet change, exercise, hand washing, cleaning habits, and common myths about diseases are just a few examples of the types of behaviors that we seek to change here in Nicaragua. The aerobics class I teach in my community was packed for the first few weeks, but then as time wore on and women saw that it was actually difficult to do exercise and lose weight, attendance tapered off. I can teach one hundred women how to cook with soy meat, but the real test comes when they’re at the corner store deciding what to make for lunch that day. After a hand-washing class, students might wash their hands regularly for a few days, but then they forget if those habits are not reinforced by their families.

At times, I also get frustrated with the slow-moving change here (but, nowhere near Jillian-level freak-outs at my community members). When you really want to make a difference, you can feel useless when you don’t see immediate results. I guess that’s why Peace Corps is two years, not two weeks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Copa Mundial

Well, looks like Nicaragua, like all of Latin America is caught up in World Cup madness – or Copa Mundial as they say here. I guess I’m a typical American – I did play soccer in elementary school, but don’t know much about the sport currently. While studying in Spain I had my first introduction to soccer and its large fan base – I remember walking home from classes in the evening and seeing old Spanish men in stylish hats smoking cigarettes and drinking vino as they watched Real Madrid or FC Barcelona play, cheers erupting from bars all over the city when goals were scored.

My site-mate Kristen is quite a soccer fan and she’s been filling me in on the basics and on the likelihood of each team’s success. Through her I learned what the little yellow flags mean, what the hottest players names are, and all about the French team’s dramatic meltdown.

Since the Copa has begun, Nicaraguans have temporarily forgotten their loyalty to baseball (it’s more popular here than soccer), and during important games, almost everyone can be found glued to their (or their neighbor’s) television or radio. Little boys have put down their bats and baseball mitts and instead can be seen kicking around worn balls on the dirt streets. Coca-Cola and various other businesses have posters featuring professional soccer players up at every corner store. On the radio, the FIFA theme songs that feature Spanish singers have been playing almost hourly, and I hear young children and adults humming the tunes mindlessly as they ride their bikes and wash laundry. Everyone has the Copa on their mind. Is it like this in the U.S.? Below a photo of Nicaraguans watching a game at a Managuan bus station. Honduras, the only Central American country to make the FIFA World Cup had the support of almost every Nicaraguan. In the finals, everyone was rooting for Uruguay (“they’re representing Latin America!”). Tomorrow’s final game between Holland and Spain however will be more controversial. I was listening to the radio today and heard the commentator say, “Now, I hear that some people are being very rude to Spain and don’t want to cheer for them tomorrow. Some people still carry a grudge against the conquistadors, but look at it this way: if they had never come over here, well then, you and I wouldn’t be here, right?” So, it seems support will be divided in tomorrow’s game. I however will be rooting for EspaƱa!
Some other noteworthy things:

-I had my third intestinal bacterial infection last week. (I also read in the paper that Bolivian President Evo Morales did as well), however I did not have to be hospitalized like he did. I did feel like I was going to die and had a fever, horrible stomach cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Thank God for Cipro – as soon as I started taking antibiotics I improved greatly. I always have to watch what I eat, especially things that contain unpurified water or milk products.

-My parents and sister arrive in Nicaragua on August 3rd for a two week visit! These will be my first official visitors and I am very excited to show them my town, my house, and the highlights of Nicaragua. I’ll be writing blog updates on our travels - wish us luck!

-I got to go to the U.S. Embassy 4th of July party that was held on Embassy grounds. It was amazing! The U.S. Embassy is really like a little piece of America here: there are toilets you can actually flush the toilet paper down, a pool and a baseball field! I’ve also heard rumors that some deer were imported from the U.S. and roam the Embassy grounds… just for kicks. Eleven other Peace Corps volunteers and I got to enjoy the great BBQ, live music and fireworks! Below is a photo of the Ambassador Robert Callahan and me (note my great headwear and his cigar, dangerously close to my face :)