Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mi Familia

The Gages came, they saw Nicaragua, and they left. I recently hosted my parents, Amelia and Steve and younger sister Rita for two weeks as we took a whirlwind tour of Nicaragua. I have been looking forward to this trip for some time, and even making an itinerary using a Google Documents spreadsheet (yes, I am that type of person). I wanted everything to go smoothly- this was my parents’ first time to a developing country, and my sister’s first time outside of North America. Needless to say, the capital of Managua took them by surprise. Managua isn’t exactly the most picturesque city- it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1972 and with the civil war in the 80’s and the country’s harsh poverty, little has been rebuilt.

After the initial shock of the dilapidated and scorching hot capital, we rented a car (although this took some convincing on my part- my parents had heard horror stories of Managua drivers, no street signs, corrupt policemen, and unpaved roads. While we did encounter all of those things, we came out alive).

We stayed in my house in my community for three nights. Correction: three very hot nights in which the electricity went out for over 24 hours and we were without fans to keep us cool while we slept. Note: if your family is coming to visit you directly from Alaska, make sure you have either air conditioning or electric fans around at all times. Despite the heat and having to use my outhouse, they did quite well. My sister learned how to wash her clothes by hand, they ate gallo pinto (red beans and rice) until they couldn’t any more, went on quite a few “off-road” adventures, and tried numerous traditional foods including fried green plantains and a drink made from barley. I put my father to work; having him do a little hammer-and-nailing around my house (so great to have a man around to do these things), and he even visited a farm with me and milked a cow! My parents and sister surprised me at how well they did here. Since my father grew up in a semi-farm life with a pet cow, my mother washed her own clothes when she was young, and they´ve all been on many Alaskan camping trips with outhouses and mosquitoes, Nicaragua wasn´t too much of a stretch. My father did make me laugh though when he offered to buy me an air conditioner for my house here. I told him it wouldn´t work because 1. There is a large gap where air can enter between my ceiling and my walls, 2. Electricity is very expensive here, and 3. It would sort of defeat the purpose of Peace Corps – to live just like the people you are working with. Below: my parents in my bed protected by my mosquito net, teaching Rita how to wash clothes by hand in my ¨sink,¨and my father getting back to his roots.

Their favorite part of the trip was when we went to a rural community outside my town´s urban center for a pregnant women’s group meeting and to visit a small high school that I often work at. They met about every resident in town, handed out some baby toys to the pregnant women courtesy of my older brother, his wife and their two young girls, and got to pop in on an English class at the high school. All the students were very interested in my family. I had been talking-up the trip for weeks, and it was probably only about the third time they’ve seen Americans (besides Peace Corps volunteers). My family also got to see the world map mural that my site-mate Kristen and I have been painting with the students. We’re almost done! My father also brought some medical equipment to donate to my Health Center from the hospital he works at. The nurses were very grateful for the blood pressure cuffs, electronic baby scale, centrifuge, nebulizer, and vaccination thermometer. Our last day in my community, we took a tour of a local coffee cooperative. Although it’s not the cutting and processing season, we saw all the machinery and bought quite a few pounds of coffee (at a much cheaper price than you would find once it’s packaged and sold at places like Starbucks’!). They also saw how the traditional corn and cheese crackers, rosquillas are made in a town called Somoto, just a few kilometers from Honduras. Below: my family with the high school class they met.

After my site, we headed south again. In the town of EstelĂ­, we explored the cigar factories, observing how they cut the leaves, ferment them in large humid piles, and roll the cigars (grown from Cuban seeds). We hiked out to a beautiful 36m waterfall and enjoyed being in the green mountains. I was glad they decided to visit during the rainy season (May-October) since everything is more beautiful and lush. Below: parents and Rita at the waterfall.

Next on our tour was the beach! We traversed the country to get down to the coastal town of San Juan del Sur, just 12 km from Costa Rica. Despite the rainy afternoons and blistering heat during the day, they enjoyed the more “touristy” vibe (they could order food in English). We went to Maderas beach for an afternoon and frolicked in the waves. My father said it was the first time he had ever swum in warm ocean water! Well, cross that off the bucket list now...

We dined on lobster, ceviche, and goji berry and spirulina smoothies. I felt like I was back in the U.S. for a few days – after all, this was my vacation too! My father and sister did a zip line canopy tour and saw howler monkeys and parrots. I didn’t go with them since I was feeling crummy with yet another bout of intestinal parasites. I think I’m going on about seven times now... Below: Dad on the zip line, and he and I on the beach at sunset.

Last stop on our trip was the colonial town of Granada, one of Nicaragua’s prettiest cities. There are countless churches, convents, and colonial-style buildings – all on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. It is one of the oldest cities in Central America, founded in 1524. We visited during their yearly patron saint festival. This involved carnival-style costumes and dancing, fireworks, street vendors, a horse parade, bull riding, and concerts in the park. It was a little overwhelming for my family since their eardrums have still not adjusted to the increased decibels in Nicaragua, and being surrounded by hundreds of drunk, Spanish-speaking people can make one feel a little disconcerted when they are worried about being robbed a little more than they care about watched the next dancing horse trot by. Below: us at Volcano Masaya, and my mother and I took a mosaic class and made a beautiful tile!

Overall I think my family really enjoyed the trip. They were very open-minded and easy-going throughout the trip, and did a great job putting up with me for the entire two weeks regulating their every move to make sure they didn’t get burned, swindled, sick, or robbed. They saw the beautiful, the good, the bad, the ugly and the sad. One amazing experience they found eye-opening was meeting a Nicaraguan civil war veteran in my community who had been forced to fight with the Contras and lost his leg and eye. He had undergone 19 surgeries in various countries, and amazingly still maintained a positive outlook and willingness to understand others’ perspectives. My family saw the most rural of rural and poorest of the poor when we visited small outlying communities; they forged rivers and got dirty; they endured heat and rain and lived like a real Peace Corps volunteer, which is basically like a real Nicaraguan. My mother said when she was leaving that now I didn’t feel “as far away” to her. It’s true, while Nicaragua may feel worlds away culturally; it really is just a two-hour flight from Los Angeles. My family found many similarities in the Nicaraguan people and in my life here to their lives back in Alaska. Saying goodbye was hard. But, it will be a short eight months until my service is completed. Hopefully I’ll have another visitor soon! (Hint, hint)

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