Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Adios Nicaragua

Where were you when President Obama was sworn-in in January 2009? I was in Miami, Florida watching it on TV, enjoying my last day in the U.S. I was preparing to leave to begin my Peace Corps service as a community health volunteer the next day.

After 27 months living in this hemisphere’s second poorest country, I have completed my service and am now officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV).

I have learned a few things and changed a few pre-conceived notions about the world, about development and about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve recently been reflecting on as I prepare to leave Nicaragua next week to return to the U.S.:

I will never throw anything away before first thinking of how I could re-use it or give it to another person. Nothing should ever be wasted!

Development work is not as simple as I once thought

As much as we try in the developed world to be “green” and save the environment, our lifestyles are not sustainable and for all the little changes we make (using energy efficient light bulbs, using less plastic grocery bags, etc.) it makes just a small dent in the overall picture of our carbon footprint

Peace Corps isn’t perfect – but neither is the UN, Save the Children, UNICEF, the IMF or the World Bank (living here I’ve seen firsthand many of the programs these organizations implement and have realized their respective strengths and flaws). Peace Corps is just another tool to help increase diplomacy, communication and if development increases along the way, so be it
There are certain things that I will miss, and others that I cannot wait to get away from. Let’s start with the negative first and end on a positive note.  You’ll notice the latter list outnumbers the former.

Things I will NOT miss:

Rainy season – being wet and moldy all the time

Dry season – being dry, dusty and allergic all the time

Catcalls and verbal harassment on the street

Living alone and feeling vulnerable

Hours and hours spent on hot, sweaty, dusty and noisy chicken buses

Horrible customer service

Barking dogs and crowing roosters at night keeping me awake

The lack of separation of politics and education, health and other social and government services

Coffee so sweet you can feel cavities forming and food so salty, your mouth dries up eating it

Weekly comments by friends and neighbors on how “fat” or “skinny” you look that day (they are never even accurate)

Seeing heart-breaking poverty all around you – in rural villages and in the largest cities

Things I will miss about Nicaragua:

Bathing in my outdoor shower being able to see the birds and sun

Washing clothes by hand (it’s enjoyable to a certain extent)

Warm weather

Close friends I have made here and their open hearts and hospitable spirits

Vibrant Latin music and dancing. Everyone from babies to the elderly knows how to shake it to the latest reggaeton song or the most classic ballad or salsa song

The freedom I have in my work here. Also, the more relaxed pace of work and life in general

Seeing people who are so poor, yet so happy and giving

Kids dressed in school uniforms walking past my house at 6:45 am every day on their way to class, telling me it’s time to start a new day

Red beans and corn tortillas

Being able to really “eat locally”

Being within a day’s travel to a gorgeous Pacific beach

Brightly colored houses (my own hot pink house especially)

The camaraderie and closeness I feel with other Peace Corps volunteers –especially those in my group “Nica 49”

Nica 49 at our "Close of Service Conference" with our two Nicaraguan supervisors

The clip-clop sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone street outside my house

My site-mate Kristen

Kristen and me
“Visiting” people being a day-long activity

Fresh fruit – mangos, watermelon, pineapple, coconut and dragon fruit especially

Feeling powerful and capable because of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer. I feel confident calling a meeting of older leaders, parents, teachers, health center staff, and youth because I know they will respect me and listen to what I have to say both because I am from the U.S. and a Peace Corps volunteer

The hospitality of village people and their willingness to let you into their lives and homes

The black/white nature of male/female relationships here. You will know if a guy likes you or not right away. It will be made apparent when you first meet him by a whistle, cat call or sexist comment. No beating around the bush here!

I will never take for granted again the following things:

Indoor plumbing

Tap water that doesn’t make you sick

Customer service and efficiency in businesses

Quality clothing and shoes

Hot showers and bathtubs

Ubiquitous wireless internet

Having a car at your disposal

Washing machine/dryer


Vacuum cleaners

As I prepare to return to the U.S., I am finding myself feeling a little ambivalent about it all; sort of without emotions. I’m not excited to leave, but I’m also definitely ready to go. I do feel that my time here has been sufficient and I am ready to move on to the next step, whatever that may be. I plan to move back to Alaska to work for a time before possibly beginning graduate studies next year in international relations somewhere on the east coast. My life feels very up-in-the-air at the moment, and this surprises me. When I started Peace Corps I thought that by the end of these two years, I would “have it all figured out.” I would know what I wanted to study in graduate school and I would feel more mature and have finalized my “life plan” (whatever that is…). However, this of course is not the case. These two years have gone by faster than any other period in my life, and I find myself asking just as many questions today as I did when I began Peace Corps in 2009, perhaps even more questions, and more complicated ones.

My body and my spirit are tired though. I’m ready to go back to the U.S. for a bit to recuperate before I will be ready to think about what comes next. After being sick with some intestinal parasite or bacteria every 1-2 months here, I am physically exhausted and ready to feel healthy and energetic again. I am also emotionally worn out. I have worked so hard here to learn the culture, learn how to work with the Ministry of Health, troubleshoot problems that arose, deal with failed projects, strategize how to implement successful ones, and deal with the daily stresses of life in a third world country – all of this alone.

I am proud of myself for sticking it out until the end, through some very tough times. Of my group of 21 volunteers who entered the country, 13 of us finished our service completely. These are pretty normal Peace Corps statistics. It has been an emotional and physical rollercoaster – Peace Corps is definitely not for everyone, and that doesn’t mean that volunteers that complete all their service are superior to others, it just means we’re more stubborn perhaps :)

At our end of service presentation with our supervisor (far left) and the Peace Corps country director (second from left)
On my last day in-site, it was very odd to see my pink house empty of all my possessions. I will definetly miss the $45/month rent, but I am looking forward to indoor plumbing again! I sold most of my furniture and household items to the new volunteer replacing me in my site – in one pick-up truck load, my entire Nicaraguan life was moved out! Saying goodbyes in site was a tearful but necessary evil and I had a hard time saying adios to dear friends such as Mariana and her family who have supported me through my toughest times (my robbery) and celebrated happy ones (our joint birthdays in June) with me like I was part of their family. It is so hard saying goodbye to people when you don’t know when you’ll see them again. I probably won’t return to visit Nicaragua for at least 3-4 years.

My last meal in-site at Mariana's house.  Plantain, beans and cheese.
Ready to go!

Ringing the bell at the Peace Corps office - a tradition for all volunteers who end their two years

Who hoo!
 Some people I do know I will see soon are three of my good girlfriends from my Peace Corps group “Nica 49” that are coming to visit me in Alaska in May for two weeks! I am excited to host visitors and share Alaska with them. We are already looking forward to this reunion and I know it will help us all go through the re-adjustment process to the U.S.

I’m ready for some rest and relaxation in the States – luckily my parents and I will be visiting Orlando, Florida for five days when I return. Although I’m not sure if Orlando is the place one goes for r&r, or if it will just rudely shock me back into American culture. Either way, I’m looking forward to visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and drinking a butterbeer! I am also looking forward to buying an iPhone, drinking a Kombucha tea and seeing my nieces (and they will happen in that order as well). I will be traveling visiting family in Oregon and then going to my sister’s graduation in California in May.

I’m not going to become complacent however. I know that after a few weeks, I’ll be ready for the next adventure!

1 comment:

AKgirlie92 said...

love you penny! i got emotional seeing you ring that bell. a job well done my friend!