Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stuff to Bring to Peace Corps

Right around this time last year I was freaking out trying to gather everything I needed to move to Nicaragua for 27 months. No, who am I kidding? I started packing at around 8pm the night before I had to catch a 7am flight. BUT I imagine that normal people WOULD be freaking out. Sure, Peace Corps Nicaragua sent me a list of things I should bring – underpants, flashlight, deck of cards etc. It reads kinda like a list of what to take to summer camp. But this particular summer camp lasts two years and three months. In addition, I recently found out that a dear friend of mine will be arriving in Nicaragua to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer next month, so this list started as an email to her and I thought that it might be helpful to others as well.

•Exercise stuff! – You’re going to be here for two years, there are no gyms, you’re eating rice and beans and everything is fried. That means that boys lose weight and girls gain weight (usually). So, bring your yoga mat! You can use it for tons of things (including a bed) and I’m sooo happy to have mine. Also, books or dvds of workouts are nice, as well as a good pair running shoes.

•Tea – It’s impossible to get good tea here so it has to be imported.

•Spices – Sure, you can get normal seasonings but if you like curry, or turmeric, or that sort of thing you should BYO.

•Seeds – to plant your own herb gardens. I have sweet basil, lemon basil, mint, and cilantro growing.

•Your favorite jeans – I know, the PC list says to bring business casual and that jeans are not acceptable. But guess what? They are! I wear jeans almost every day as does every other professional in my community. Basically, bring clothes that you like.

•Dress-Up Clothes – Um, Alicia, we’re going dancing. So bring something cute. I can lend you something if you want. Also, you can buy stuff down here. But probably bring your favorite high heels.

•Photos – Of you, of your family, of your house. Everyone wants to know where you come from and what you’re about!

•Laptop – I use it all the time. There are cyber cafes everywhere but most of them don’t have skype and you can’t download onto them. Also, it’s nice to be able to watch movies and listen to music at home.

•Ipod – I ride the bus A LOT and I can only listen to so many hours of reggaeton and cumbia. Also, when you’re feeling down or lonely it’s nice to be able to listen to music.

•Anything else that you need to be comfortable! – No one will judge you if you bring a blow dryer for your hair, for example. If you want it, or plan on wanting it in the next 27 months then bring it!

I’m sure there are things that I’ve forgotten and things that you’ll only miss once you get down here, but this is a short list of things that I’m really glad I brought or had to have sent to me. Also, if anyone else out there has questions on what to bring, or anything else for that matter, feel free to email me! Also, this is a photo of my neighbor pig. Don’t grow too attached, he’ll be eaten soon.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Crazies

Ventura and I have been co-habitating for 5 days now and we already have our routine down perfect. No, I haven’t taken a live-in boyfriend, or roommate. Ventura is the town crazy who has decided to take up residence on my front stoop. His reasons for preferring my stoop to the stoop of others have led me to start a town-wide stoop analysis. As I go about my daily life, I take note of the other stoops throughout town. What makes my stoop different from the others? One would be quick to point out that, clearly, the fact that it is, for the time being, a North American stoop. Okay, I can see that. But why would he care? The thought process could have included him thinking, “Well, the white girl has more money and might therefore give me more food.” But in 5 days he has proven this theory to be incorrect.

Our day begins at 5am when he starts yelling from the stoop, to me, to passersby, to the chickens, “¡Quiero café!” At about 6:30am we have our first encounter as I am sweeping out the previous days dust, depositing it back outside so that it can spend the day thinking of ways to outsmart me and come back in. Ventura looks at me with a hint of sweetness in his eyes “Quiro café” he repeats more politely. To which I patiently explain to him that I do not drink coffee but instead tea. His face never fails to reveal his emotions as he becomes downcast at the news. On day 2 of his stay I offered him tea and he eagerly nodded and smiled a toothless smile. I made him a cup of Earl Grey and he took one sip and spat it out on my. He asked for sugar. I gave him honey. He still didn’t drink the tea. He asked for tortilla. I explained to him that I don’t eat tortillas but that I would be happy to share my melon with him. He nodded delightfully but later I found the melon, untouched, and hidden in a corner.

As I leave the house to go to work I wish him a good day and he in return giggles a little and smiles shyly. I return for lunch to find Ventura sleeping on the porch, his boots with no laces set neatly next to him and his tattered red blanket covering his body. My porch is shaded most of the day until late afternoon when the sun’s rays are strong and unrelenting. He sleeps through everything and looks peaceful.

He wakes up again in the early evening and leaves – I assume looking for dinner. He walks through the street muttering incomprehensibly under his breath and looking for treasures in the gutters – bottle caps, rocks, sticks. Sometimes he loses his pants and wanders naked. The good people of my town take him in, bathe him, dress him, feed him, and send him on his way. Everyone knows him; everyone gives him what they can when he asks. I hear him again in the early morning, before the chickens wake up and long before my neighbor women start making tortillas. Its 1am, 2am, 3am, and he’s alone on my porch cackling loudly, yelling angrily, and sometimes crying. His dementia torments him when the rest of the world is sleeping soundly.

I’ve tried talking to Ventura, I wanted to know how gone he really was.

-“Ventura, when is your birthday?”
-“Who knows.”
-“Ventura, how old are you?”
-“Who knows.”
-“Ventura, where were you born?”
-“Up in the mountains. I want coffee.”

And so, I explain to him again patiently that I have no coffee and instead bring him a banana, a compromise for the both of us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Anonymous Departure

There is a tree that I pass often in the bus on a long solitary stretch of the twisting mountain road that I travel to get to the communities that I work in. This tree is occasionally donning clothing – socks on its branches, shirts hanging on its limbs and shoes on the ground around it. I find it odd, ponder the meaning for only a few moments, conclude that it’s silly, and move on in my thoughts to other roadside distractions. Except that yesterday there were two dead dogs beneath the tree. I would not have known that they were dead if it weren’t for the big black buzzards pecking away at their seemingly sleeping bodies. They looked calm in their sleep and I half expected them to get up and jump at the scavengers to chase them away. But they didn’t. They continued on in their sleep with the socks swaying slightly in the breeze in the branches above them. My original reaction was melancholy and a sense of the inevitability and sheer loneliness of death. It made me sad that two once-living beings, who were still fresh on the other side, who still had their spots and their fur and their teeth and their bones connected by flesh and cartilage, were unceremoniously being picked apart by the big black beasts as if instead of a once-sacred life force they were reduced to being the free-box at a yard sale in a poor neighborhood. But why does the passing of life always make humans uncomfortable? It’s strange that we should have such a stigma against it when it is the predictable outcome of all life on a long enough timeline. And why would I care that the bodies were under the sock-tree being eaten by birds? The dogs were probably hit by passing vehicles and dragged off of the road to continue their eventual decomposition under a tree that just so happens to have a clothing fetish. Is that so strange? Not really. The cycle continues. Whether we want it to or not. Whether we write about it or not. Whether we think about it, or talk about it, or give it permission. And so, I have concluded, that when I die, be it tomorrow, or the next day, or when I’m one hundred and two, I want it to be known, that I would like to be recycled in a similar manner. The tree doesn’t have a dress-code - its own bark and leaves will do just fine. It doesn’t need to be in Nicaragua necessarily, or indeed any particular place. I would only like to request that I be dragged of the beaten path, be it a road, or a bed, and laid to rest on my unceremonious, above-ground grave plot to let the buzzards bury me in their hungry bellies.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Night Time

The nights are a symphony of sounds mixed with melodic negative space. I often awake suddenly in the night, to reflect upon a dream or envisage an idea or on occasion for no discernable reason and all, and I listen. It’s not as if I actively seek out the sounds of the night, but rather they are inescapable. I hear through the darkness the secret night life of the wind. Sometimes she throws small rocks and grit at my metal doors and threatens to rip my tin roof clean off of my house with such passion and power that I wonder the cause of her tantrums and can only conclude that she is acting out her rage from a lover’s row. Sometimes the wind is flirtatious, whispering through the cracks of my windows and through the space where my walls do not meet my roof. And sometimes, she sleeps, or at least appears to be sleeping because the air is silent and calm and I can tell by the voices of the chirping insects that they are happy in her absence to have been generously been granted the chance to reign the hum of the shadows. The insects show self-control and predictability and they have proven time and again that they can be counted on. The tone and urgency of their dialogues change occasionally to predict a coming storm, or to rejoice in the wake of a storm that they have made it to the other side unscathed. If the wind is cast as the moody lover, then the rain is perhaps her protagonist because there is no fury greater and no touch as tender as the rain. He vacations from December through May when he checks in only occasionally to let us know that he’s doing well with a sprinkling, to let us know that he’s thinking of us with a misty morning, and sometimes at night with a hurried rain that hits the tin roofs hard and ends as quickly as it has begun. He will reappear from afar in May, when the earth thinks that she can no longer handle the dryness and can no longer remember the taste of rain, and he will mercilessly drown her, proving again and again that there does exist too much of a good thing. Yes, it does certainly rain during the day in the wet season, because it rains constantly, but in the night, when one cannot rely on the sense of sight and therefore the sense of hearing becomes heightened, can we hear, really hear, what the rain is saying. He will attentively rock us to sleep with his fairy-tales and promises pattered softly and sweetly when we wake in the night like small children drenched in sweat from a nightmare. He will come in on the arm of Wind dancing and singing raucously, the both clearly enjoying the company of the other. He will storm in, unannounced, and demand angrily that all plans be cancelled on his behalf. And in true proof of his amorous relations with Wind, they will both come at the same time, and wage war, she tearing out trees, he ripping down bridges, until both of them have had their side of the argument voiced and neither of them have any life left to fight and they resolve to quietly leave together, to settle their battle or to mend their love in private.

And so, here in Nicaragua, where I have no electricity for weeks at a time, people often ask me if I get bored, and my reply for all of them - With drama like this, how could I?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest Blog by Jan (Vanessa's Mom)

My trip to Nicaragua for a couple weeks over the holidays was the vacation I’ve always wanted but never could talk anyone into going on with me before. I was able to live like a Peace Corps volunteer (except for the work part since school was out) and be mistaken for a PCV, which was fun, and hear the stories of volunteers. The village in the mountains where Vanessa lives is tidy and pleasant, and things work surprisingly well, including the buses which are sometimes loaded down so full of people, 100 pound bags of coffee, and assorted machinery that I wondered how much more could be loaded before the engine would burn up or the tires would burst.

Business was steady at the stores we went to, the stores were well stocked and we were usually able to find what we needed. Fruits and vegetables were plentiful at the outdoor markets, the water filter worked well, and the people in town were especially kind and generous.

Sleeping in the village took some getting used to since the winning soccer team might go by singing on their way home from the bar at 1 a.m., the roosters start crowing at 2 or 3 a.m., and each of at least the eight days before Christmas I was there, huge fireworks go off for an hour at 4 a.m., perhaps as an incentive to get up and go to mass, right outside the house and loud enough to hurt my ears if I didn’t plug them. There would be a “whoosh-whoosh” warning to plug ears, then BOOM BOOM, over and over again, every morning. Vanessa slept through it. Since I’ve been back home I sleep very well, for the first time in years.

The highlight of the trip was a trip to Vanessa’s friend’s grandma’s farm, a beautiful and remote subsistence farm with no electricity or running water, where they grown coffee to sell, and they grow corn, beans, bananas and citrus fruits for their own consumption. We rode a bus part way, then rode standing in the back of a pickup, holding onto a rack on top of the cab. The road was rocky, rutted and treacherous, and very fun. We were at the farm for two nights, including the winter solstice when we sat out on the porch and waited for the full moon to rise. It felt like going my own grandma’s house, and I did not feel like a grown up. I played on the mountain with the two kids while Vanessa went to pick coffee, and we chased the calves home and played volleyball and school. My grandma used to tell stories about when she lived in a dirt floor shack and she never sounded unhappy about it. I always wondered how things worked in that environment and now I understand more about the simplicity and why Grandma’s eyes would light up when she talked about it. An open air kitchen where the puppies and kittens are running in and out, the hens come in to lay eggs in a nest in the kitchen, and everybody is helping out with the chores makes for a very interesting day. The kids load a big gunny sack full of dried ears of corn, then it’s all shucked, shelled, soaked and ground by hand in a crank grinder, then made into tortillas. The cow is milked, the milk is strained and then the cheese is made. The wood cook stove needs to be tended to all day, fueled by wood and corn cobs. Water is brought in from the spring in big jugs, sweet and good, I drank a lot of it. It was peaceful and a wonderful place to be and the people were especially kind. Vanessa has been there a few times helping out and I think I was the lucky recipient of the good will she generated.

I have a better understanding of the difficulties and rewards of being a Peace Corps volunteer. I thought I might like to volunteer someday, but it’s a lot bigger job than I imagined. I’ve come away with a great admiration for the volunteers. They’re making a difference every day and the skill set they come home with will change their lives forever. I hope I can visit again to see the things we didn’t have time for, organic farms, nature preserves and national parks. It was very nice to have Vanessa in charge of the business dealings since my Spanish was not at a level to be very useful. I can’t wait to go back!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving and as always I have much to be thankful for. It seems pedantic to make a list of everything I’m thankful for as I used to have to do in elementary school so I’ll give you my top 3 reasons that I’m thankful, (in no particular order.)
1. My health. I know I’ve written previously about my misadventure in the Health Center and that I’ve had the flu/cold 4 times, but, dude, I live in Central America and I haven’t had parasite issues as of yet. This is a miracle. I don’t harbor false beliefs that I don’t have parasites per se, it’s just that we’ve adjusted to one another so well that I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. I like to think that my stomach is strong from eating so much candy and whatever off of the ground when I was little, not washing my hands as often as I should, not washing my fruit and vegetables all of the time, and basically maintaining a close and working friendship with germs in general. But, I’m probably giving credit where credit is not due (let it be known that I do not condone eating things out of gutters. Anymore.) In any case, I’ve been lucky to have good health for the majority of my life, and especially in Nicaragua. And for that I’m thankful.
2. Support from my friends and family. You! Yes, you! Unless you’re a super-bored stranger randomly visiting the mostly-boring blogs of unfamiliar-persons, then I know you! And chances are that I probably even like you and think about you often. It’s hard to be a foreigner in a strange land, some days harder than others, and to know that there are people rooting for me to succeed, and eager to hear about my achievements and my failures, is sometimes what gets me through the day. You give me a lot of encouragement and it gives me strength to continue to do my work here. Honestly, I couldn’t do this alone!
3. My Mom! I know, I know, I already mentioned friends and family, but I’m really, really thankful for my mom. So thankful, in fact, that she merits her own number. She dutifully sends a monthly package and regretfully omits my jellybean request. Because she loves me and doesn’t want me to get cavities. I guess I see the logic. More importantly, I receive her advice ranging from how to make chili, to how to deal with willful counterparts, to what to gift a 15 year old girl for her confirmation in the Catholic Church. We talk almost daily via one media or another and even though she’s far, far away, she isn’t really. I have a nica friend who lost his mom when he was twelve years old. One day, I was telling him some sort of funny or silly story about my mom and when I was done he said “Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world to have a mom?” And I replied “Yeah, it is.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Time speeding slowly by...

I was told that I would hit a wall, and I have. I’ve been here long enough that I’ve grown accustomed to the lifestyle, the oddities of daily living. It no longer surprises me to see cows, pigs and horses, wandering in the street, competing for space with cars, trucks and motorcycles, because I see it every day. It is no longer noteworthy for the water at my house to come out of the faucet as mud because it happens quite often. My baseline has changed, and consequently I don’t have much to report to you all. Please accept my apologies and if you’d like me to write about something in particular, let me know and I will gladly oblige to your request.

I was given the latest issue of InStyle magazine and while I admittedly flipped through the pages savoring every detail of each photograph, each ad – the hairstyles, the make-up, the clothes, the background; I was surprised by my reactions to some of the ads. Swimming the English Channel in a Rolex? That’s ri-goddamn-diculous. Bono and his wife in Africa totally decked out in Louis Vuitton? I don’t care if the profits do “benefit Conservation Cotton Initiative Uganda,” the frivolous wealth and abject poverty juxtaposed brings the taste of bile to my mouth. All of the anti-aging creams, treatments, serums, drops, the 5 ads for different kinds of mascara that all promise the same results, the endless barrage of perfumes, made me both disgusted by consumerism and at the same time covet whatever over-priced, plastic-packaged, mass-manufactured product they were hawking. I’m at an interesting cross-road in this arena. I was recently asked by a friend back in the US how living in a third-world country has changed my ideas on consumerism. And the truth is, I feel way more pressure in Nicaragua to dress fashionably, to wear make-up and perfume, to paint my nails, to wear high heels, etc. It could be because of the machismo here; the women here are compelled to look beautiful. It could be because it’s a status-symbol. No one knows designer brands in my pueblo, the “luxury” brands are Hollister, Levi’s, Nike, Playboy and Adidas. No one has ever heard of Gucci, Dior, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana. So, Ross, to answer your question, there’s just as much consumerism in Nicaragua as there is in the US. The difference is that it’s scaled back on the amount of dollars spent. Instead of making $2000 dollars a month and splurging on a $500 pair of shoes/handbag/jeans/whatever, here they make $200 dollars a month and splurge on a $50 pair of shoes/handbag/jeans/whatever. The most obvious and common example, that you can find in any town in Nicaragua, is the household with a dirt floor, wooden beds, maybe not even a toilet and yet they have a big screen TV, a DVD player, and Nintendo.

People ask me how long I’ll be in Nicaragua. “27 months,” I tell them. “Wow,” some say, “that’s such a short amount!” And others reply, “That long? You’re crazy!” Personally, I think it’s both. To create a lasting impact on individual lives, on economic growth, on changing, even just a little, belief systems, it’s hardly any time at all. A drop in the bucket, really. But to be away from my friends, my family, the seasons, the music scene, my bicycle, art, food. Well, two years and three months is quite awhile. And so, as I feel time speeding slowly by, and each day here blurring with all of the other days as I spend 27, then 24, then 20 months of eternal spring, I have created some goals that I would like to accomplish in the next 19 months.

• Write daily
• Yoga
• Study Spanish
• Study French
• Plant a garden
• Go running
• Take more photos
• Start a women’s group
• Study for GRE
• Apply for grad school
• Start a youth group
• Art projects

Lots of funny things happen here. Like last week, I was asked to go to the clinic and translate for a team of doctors from the US. “Ok, that’s easy,” I thought, “It’s probably consultations, or vaccinations, or something.” Nope, it was surgery. Open-body, up-to-the-elbow-inside-of-someone, guts-spilling-out-all-over surgery. Perhaps you already know this about me, but I’m a vegetarian. I shudder when I see a hamburger, let alone a 5 pound umbilical hernia. I would have walked out the door after the first incision into the epidermis of the abdominal region, however…, I do have an affinity for dress-up and I got to wear scrubs, a cap, and a mask. Also, I am easily bribed with candy. Not just any candy, imported candy direct from the US of A that wasn’t even melty. So I stayed. At first I set up a stool in the corner of the room facing the wall so I wouldn’t see anything. But I kept looking over my shoulder to see what was going on and to shout translations back and forth. So I moved a bit closer, still averting my eyes. And then the surgeons started pointing things out to me and, as not to be rude, I looked. “Vanessa, as you can see here, we are cutting through the layer of fat.” “Vanessa, take a look at this gallbladder, all we have to do now is disconnect it from the liver.” And after watching the first two surgeries, I felt completely comfortable with the blood-and-guts factor. And so, I spent the next two days in the surgery room watching, learning, listening, videotaping, photographing, translating, and eating candy. And I can say with confidence that I made no mistake in not studying medicine.