Friday, December 18, 2009


I am surprised to find that in rural Nicaragua I am learning a lot about the roots of North American culture. For example, had I not come here I may never have considered the roots of that quintessential American joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” That joke exists - and it’s funny - because people once lived close to chickens, and chickens are constantly crossing the road for no apparent reason, just like the bird brains they are. There was a time in American history when most people had direct experience with animals other than cats and dogs. Pigs, horses, cows, and chickens were all part of people’s daily lives. The evidence is in our language – “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”, “as dirty as a pig sty”, “coming home to roost”, “the early bird gets the worm”, and those are just the few that spring immediately to mind.

Here, there are no pets. People don’t have animals around whose only role is to receive love. All animals have jobs. If they aren’t providing food, they are protecting the house (dogs) or killing pests (cats). I tried to explain the concept of an American house cat once to my host family, and they just did not get it. It must be one of those things – like wall-to-wall carpeting – that you can’t understand unless you’ve lived with it.

Since I don’t own any animals (yet), I don’t interact much with pigs or horses or cows. But chickens are everywhere here. One of my favorite hammock activities is to observe chickens, since they do a lot of strange things. I like to watch them scratch around looking for insects. In the heat of the day they lie down on their sides and roll around, coating themselves with dirt. The way roosters chase the hens around can be pretty comical. I sometimes laugh out loud watching a flustered hen try to recuperate after a hot and heavy encounter with an amorous rooster. And like pigeons, chickens always have an inquisitive look on their faces, as though their brains are just slightly too small to grasp some important concept.

But the chickens also annoy me, since they are the primary pest from which I must protect my garden. Free range eggs are great, but chickens do not respect property lines, and my neighbor’s flock doesn’t seem to understand that my vegetables are not for them. I throw rocks at them when I see them messing with my plants, but they are too dumb to remember and be scared.

There is one rooster in particular who really gets to me, so much, in fact, that I have declared him my arch nemesis. It’s not even his behavior that bothers me so much as it is his attitude. I mean, he is just cocky (and now I know where that word comes from). He struts around like he’s the boss here, chest all puffed out, crowing, womanizing. He is beautiful, I’ll give him that, but I don’t know why he has to be so vain.

I also don’t know where the myth that roosters only crow at dawn originated. They do crow at dawn – that is true enough – but they also crow pretty much constantly throughout the entire day and night. Maybe they crow a little bit more at dawn, but they crow basically all the time. My arch nemesis is no exception. He loves to jump up on a fence post and sing his heart out, as if everyone around is just hanging on his every utterance. Whenever I see him parading around my yard, I have an uncontrollable urge to cut him down to size. So sometimes, when he’s not looking I sneak up on him, and just when he’s least expecting it, I make a loud noise. It scares the living daylights out of him. He runs away on his skinny legs, flapping his wings and making a huge racket. See, he acts tough, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a big chicken.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Development Worker

As a freshman in college I took a course that completely changed the way I thought about the world. The course was called International Relations, and during that semester we talked about global poverty, development, and the roots of the dramatic inequalities between the so-called developed and developing worlds (what used to be the First World and the Third World). Studying international development prompted me to take a new look at where I fit in – not just in terms of my own social circle, my city, my state, or even my country, but in terms of the whole world. I have to thank my professor, Eve Sandberg, because she sparked an interest that led me to pursue a graduate degree in geography and ultimately to join the Peace Corps, all in an effort to understand what development is and where I as a middle-class American fit into the global picture.

Unfortunately, development is one of those concepts that the more closely you look at it, the harder it is to pin down. While living in a poor community in one of the poorest countries in Latin America has given me some new insight on development, it has also made me question some of its most basic aspects. Starting with the most obvious one, what exactly is development? A common way to look at development is in terms of stuff – electricity, a paved road, a water system, a health center. Understood this way, development is about meeting people’s material needs, raising their material standard of living. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am a development worker, tasked with helping to meet the material need for secure and nutritious sources of food.

A more expansive definition of development, and one that I like better, is “meeting people’s needs”. I like this definition because it allows for other needs besides the material ones - such as the need to be loved and to find life satisfaction. Again unfortunately, this definition of development raises more questions than it answers. If development is about meeting both spiritual and material needs, how do you know when people have reached the point that their needs have been met? And who decides which needs are important enough to be taken into account? If I feel that I need internet access, is that a real need? What if having internet access helps me to find a job and therefore gives me more livelihood security? Determining which needs should be considered part of development gets complicated pretty quickly.

This brings me to another set of very basic questions. We tend to talk about development in terms of countries. So what exactly is a developed country versus an undeveloped or developing country? At first this seems kind of obvious – the US is a developed country and Nicaragua is an undeveloped country. In the US most people get a high school education and use flushing toilets and drive cars. In Nicaragua you can’t flush your toilet paper even if you do have a toilet, there are still horses sharing the road with cars even in the capital, and in the countryside illiteracy is very common. That’s what makes US developed and Nicaragua developing.

But does development have a meaning in an absolute sense, or can we call some countries “developed” only because other countries are “un-” or “underdeveloped”, and vice versa? Is there an endpoint to the process of development? The word “developed” makes it seem like the developed countries have reached some sort of endpoint. However, on closer inspection, it seems the US still has a long way to go if development is about making sure that all people’s needs are met. Having taught in the inner city in Philadelphia, I know that there are many children in the US who are getting an inadequate education – in some cases not much better than what the children Nicaraguan farmers are getting. Also, I believe that people have a need to live in a safe environment without the daily threat of violence. There are many communities in the US where that need is unmet. In general, it doesn’t seem to me that non-material needs – for things like fulfillment and community - are met any better in the developed world than they are in the developing world.

Still, I am not one to deny the importance of the material inequalities between countries, which raises the question of why these inequalities exist in the first place. Why are some countries more materially developed than others? Historically, the concept of development arose at the end of colonialism. After the colonial powers pulled out, the former colonies were left dependent on a global economic system in which they were at an extreme disadvantage; people living in these new countries were unable to meet their needs. Despite fifty years of global effort to stimulate development, the situation hasn’t changed much. The global South– much of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia – is home to many people whose most basic needs – for adequate food, safe drinking water, basic health care, a clean environment – are not met.

Before I came here, I thought that the best explanation for why development has been so uneven – why people in some places have so much and others so little – had to do with historical exploitation. I still believe that the roots of the inequalities in the world are there, but I now find it an incomplete explanation for why those inequalities still exist. I now believe that much of what keeps poor people poor is cultural and social. The money is there – billions of dollars of it – but the real changes have to happen in people’s minds. Without any extra money or resources, many people’s lives could be made much better. Simple practices like consistent hand-washing can save the lives of children. More complicated social changes, like making women equal to men in social status, are necessary if development projects involving stuff are to have any lasting effect.

Additionally, I’ve come to question the concept of development as pertaining to large units such as countries. I have started to see development as being as much a personal phenomenon as it is a geographical one. For instance, a development worker from London still pertains to the developed world even when on assignment in Somalia. Does a Guatemalan immigrant still pertain to the developing world when working as a landscaper in Southern California? What about the children of that landscaper who are American citizens? What if those children go to school in inner-city Los Angeles and barely learn to read and write? Or what if those children do well in school and end up completing college? Development seems to me to be based on some combination of factors – material wealth, educational opportunities, infrastructure, job prospects, life chances, and world view – all of which have both structural and personal aspects.

So where does this leave me as a development worker with a job to do? Honestly, I have good days and bad. Some days I am frustrated with very nature of the development project. How can I, one person without any resources, be expected to make any lasting changes to people’s food security situation when even big international organizations with huge budgets haven’t been able to make much headway? On good days, though, I think maybe the only way to really make any changes is person by person, one family garden and one community bank account at a time. On those days, there’s no place I’d rather be than here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Corn Queen

The other day my host mom, who is a teacher at the local school, asked me if I would be willing be a judge in a contest to choose a queen of the school. I was intrigued. "You'll want to dress up a little bit, too," she told me. "And wear some make up." On the appointed day I put on a cute little sun dress and gobs of eyeliner and arrived at the school, uncertain of what exactly I was going to be asked to do.

My Host Mom

I went to sit at the judges' table and was handed a sheet the listed several categories, each of which had a point value attached to it. The categories were as follows:
Fantasy Wear - 25
Evening Wear - 15
Modeling - 15
Presentation - 15
Response to Questions - 15
(and the enigmatic) Expresivity - 15

Each grade level, from first through sixth, had chosen a girl to represent the grade. The grade-level princesses paraded by the judges' table in outfits made from local materials - corn husks, banana leaves - and adorned with the basic grains that are the root of rural life - coffee, cocoa beans, red beans, and of course, corn. In their hair were hibiscus flowers and beads and feathers, and of course each girl was fully made up like a beauty queen.

Nicaraguans love pomp and circumstance. Each girl, as she approached the judges, stopped and made a speech that started like this: "Good morning esteemed judges, teachers, students, and assembled public. I am here representing the my grade and the school. As you can see, my dress is decorated with cacao beans. These represent the indigenous people of Nicaragua, who used cacao beans as currency..." and on and on.

Next was the evening wear competition, followed by questions about the founder of the school. As is typical of the Nicaraguan education system, the responses to the questions were all memorized. The questions all focused on the dates and facts of the life of the man for whom the school was named.

I tried to take my role as judge seriously, as did the other three members of the panel. When it was time to compare our scores, we put our heads together and debated the merits of each girl in each category. Finally, we agree that the 4th grade princess would be crowned queen of the school. The other judges asked me if I'd ever participated in an event like this when I was in school. "No," I told them. "We didn't have anything like this at my school." They looked surprised.

Passed through my own cultural filter, the school beauty pageant seemed completely strange and possibly damaging to the self-esteem of the girls involved. But in general, I am trying to experience as much of Nicaraguan life as I can, while passing as little judgment as possible. Overall, I had fun being part of the panel, and I felt honored to have been asked to do so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


During my training, my host mom was fastidious about maintaining the area around her house, aka the patio. She had several beautiful flowering bushes, a couple of pepper plants, and some fruit trees. But everywhere that she didn’t have something planted, she liked to have bare dirt. Any little speck of green that appeared was summarily removed. As a child of the grassy-lawned suburbs, I didn’t really get it. Why would my host mom want to surround her house with dust in the summer and mud in the winter? I watched with fascination every day as she weeded and then swept – with a broom – her dirt patio.

Now that I have my own patio to maintain, I have come to understand the beauty of the bare dirt. It all started with a visit from my boss. He complimented my garden, and then he said, “You see all of these weeds around your garden? All of them have a virus. See how their leaves are turning yellow? You should pull them out or cut them down because this virus can spread to the plants in your garden.” Suddenly, I saw these little plants in a whole new light. No longer did they seem innocuous; in fact, they were deadly killers. I set to work with a machete, cutting down all the weeds with yellowing leaves. I felt like Buffy, slaying vampires, battling the undead. Even infected, they were tenacious. I gained a whole new appreciation for the Spanish word for weeds – maleza – which means something like “badness.”

The next week a neighbor was passing by my house. He commented on another part of my patio, where I had allowed an uninfected variety to grow rather tall. “You know,” he said, “snakes like to live in maleza like that.” Since that day, my battle with the wild parts of my patio has grown more intense. I am out there every day now with a machete or my bare hands, cutting down the weeds or pulling them out from the root. How I long for a clean, bare dirt patio like the one my host mom had in my training.

In addition to maleza, Nicaraguans have another word for unmaintained wild growth – monte. People will talk about wild animals – poisonous snakes, armadillos, rabbits, spiders, etc – having come “from the monte”. There is no direct translation for “monte”, but I like to think of it as wild growth that occurs in the absence of human intervention. I was visiting one of the older women in my community the other day, and I asked her about what was here in our town while she was growing up. “Nada,” she said. “Only monte.” I asked her about roads, wells for water, schools. Over and over she said, “No habia nada.” There was nothing. “Solo monte.” Only wild land. “Things have gotten a lot better since then,” she said.

I’ve often heard people in the US say, “I love nature.” They use it to indicate – I don’t know what, exactly – maybe that they love camping, or that they believe in recycling. I’ve been thinking about that phrase because I might have once been one to use it. But no longer. First of all, saying “I love nature” is kind of like saying “I love living on Earth”. It may be true, but it’s obvious, and it means practically nothing. What else is there besides nature? Where else would you live besides Earth? Second of all, many parts of nature I don’t love at all; in fact, many parts of nature I actively dislike. I don’t love scorpions, or intestinal parasites, or tarantulas – all of which, by the way, I have had encounters with here in Nicaragua.

As one who holds a degree in geography - the study of how humans interact with the natural environment - I have spent a lot of mental energy considering how we in the Western world relate to nature, especially those “nature-lovers” who are part of the environmental movement. Too often, I think, the subtext of environmentalism is that the world would be better off without people. The rhetoric goes something like this: human beings have thrown off the natural cycles, interrupted the workings of Mother Nature, and generally made the planet an uglier and unhealthier place. If we weren’t here, things wouldn’t be this messed up.

Now, all of that may be true, to some extent; for the first time, humanity is realizing that it is possible for us to make an impact on the natural world on a global scale – not just on the scale of the patio. But despite how much damage it is possible for us to do, I don’t believe that all human intervention necessarily leaves the natural world worse off. The key is balance. In the case of my patio, I honestly believe that there are benefits from my intervention. And more importantly, I believe that as a human being I have a right to live in this world and to take steps to change my surroundings so that they are safer, healthier, and more beautiful for me. Even if that means that I am making those surroundings less hospitable for other species. Scorpions? Tarantulas? Virus-infected weeds? They’re fine out in the monte. But not in my patio.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Working with Youth

In all of the Peace Corps programs in Nicaragua, working with youth is a major priority. Demographically speaking, Nicaragua is a very young country – more than 70% of the population consists of people under the age of 30. I haven’t started a formal youth group yet, but I have acquired some groupies among the youth in my town.

One in particular – her name is Gema (pronounced HAY-ma) – likes to accompany me on whatever I do during the weekend days when she is out of school. Together, she and I formed a small informal cooking group that meets every Saturday to try new foods. So far we’ve made banana bread, soy milk, and sweet potato soup. This past Saturday, we decided to make a chocolate cake. As it turned out, a volunteer friend who lives in the nearby town of Namanji is finishing her service this month and was also planning make a chocolate cake for her going away party, so the two of us teamed up. We bought the ingredients and borrowed cake pans, and we spent Saturday morning working with the kids to bake the cakes. The deal was that we would eat one and the other Sarah and I would bring to the going away party.

Fortunately, the house where we do the cooking class has a barrel oven, which is much easier to use than the old-fashioned ovens that most people have. Still, most Nicaraguan baked goods are cooked at very high temperatures, so we ended up burning the crap out of the tops of both cakes. We scraped off the burned parts, and one of the kids had the idea of making a frosting to cover up the parts where there was cake missing. This kid – his name is Pipe (pronounced PEE-pay) – totally took charge of the icing, and ended up saving the cake that Sarah was bringing to the party.

The plan was for me to spend the night at Sarah’s site, since there are no buses at night and it’s generally not a good idea to travel after sundown. We would go to the special dinner her community members were throwing for her and then to the big going away party. When we got on the bus, there were Gema, Pipe, and another teenager, Laura. “Hey guys, are you coming to the party?” we asked them. We assumed that they had family in the other town and had made arrangements to spend the night. But when we arrived in Namanji it quickly became apparent that they hadn’t made any plans. That’s when things got a bit awkward, since we didn’t have anywhere for three extra people to sleep, and the dinner was by invitation.

“Do you have any family members here that you can stay with?” we asked them. The kids were quiet. “Tell me,” Sarah said, “where were you expecting to stay tonight?”
The kids looked at each other sheepishly, and finally Gema replied, “With you.”
I would have been annoyed (well I was a little bit), except that it was just so cute that these teenagers wanted to spend the time being with us, and they were so obviously embarrassed to have assumed that they could just jump on to our plans without asking. In the end we were able to find places for them to stay, we arranged for them to be able to go to the dinner, and we brought them along to the party. And it was great. I was really glad to have them with us. The three of them danced all night, they had a great time, they borrowed Sarah’s camera and took great pictures with it, and it was especially nice for me to have some people I knew with me at the party.

The next morning we drank our coffee and ate sweet bread, and the kids and I decided to walk back to my community instead of waiting for the bus. To make the walk go faster, I whipped out all of my latent camp-counselor skills – we played word games and math games and guessing games. We played a version of a game I used to play with my mom – A my name is Alice, and my husband’s name is Albert, and we come from Alabama, with a basket full of Alligators! We went through the entire alphabet in Spanish, laughing the entire time. Then, I decided to work in a little bit of English practice. Students here take English class, but they learn just by writing and translating; they almost never practice speaking. So I got the kids all excited about the fact that my family is coming to visit in December. Then I had them practice what they were going to say to my mom and my dad and my brother when they come.
“What do you want to say to them?” I asked the kids.
“Hello, how are you? What is your name? Do you like Nicaragua? What do you like to eat?” We practiced all of it, with me pretending to be each family member that’s coming to visit. They had a great time with it, and it was just adorable.

Again, as continues to happen to me here, I was overwhelmed with joy at being able to connect with people, and it happened in a completely unexpected and unplanned way. I am starting to see that, most likely, the biggest impact I will have here will come from just being with people, from spending time with them in informal situations. Furthermore, I didn’t come here expecting that I would find my greatest fulfillment from working with young people, but the time I spent with my young friends this weekend gave me cause to reconsider.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Food Security Volunteer’s Dilemma

My charge as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nicaragua is to work to improve the food security of the people in my community. One way to do that is to use food that would normally go to waste and process it into products that can be sold either here in this town or in one of the larger cities nearby. Assuming that the farmers are able to plant vegetables this season (we’ve been suffering from a terrible drought that has nearly dried up the river that the farmers use to water their crops), a goal of mine is to take all the tomatoes and peppers that can’t be sold in the market and turn them into sauces. We can make tomato sauce and pepper sauce and salsa and ketchup. I’d like to even teach some people to make pizza. There are a lot of bakers in my town, and selling slices could be a great business. In addition to having other sources of income, I’d like to encourage people to add more variety to their diets – above all to incorporate more vegetables and fruits. I’m excited about finding all kinds of value-added products that people can make and sell – jams, jellies, sauces, dried fruits, herb teas, etc.

But things here start slowly. So far I’m working on building enough confianza – trust – to be able to propose such projects. One of the easiest ways I’ve found to get to know people is to come and cook with them in their homes. In the past three months, I’ve made a ton of banana bread, some oatmeal raisin cookies, and even some sweet potato pancakes (those were really delicious). I’ve also taught a lot of people how to make soy milk and soy meat. A couple of weeks ago I made a first attempt at a value-added product. A group of women I’ve been cooking with decided to try to make orange marmalade – it’s orange season, and so oranges are practically free – and sell it at the school.

We washed and peeled the oranges, we boiled the peels and added the pulp. And then it was time to add the sugar. We put in a little bit at first, then each person tasted it, and after each tasting we added more. And more. And more. At the end what we had was more sugar than orange. Which I guess is fine; that’s what marmalade and jelly and jam are all about, I suppose. But what was really appalling to me was how people wanted to eat it. When I said “orange marmalade”, I was thinking of something that you spread on bread or crackers, something that you use in small amounts. When the women I was working with said “mermelada”, they were thinking of something that you eat by the spoonful, like jello.

At the end, as I watched the women I had worked with enjoying their creation and talking about selling it to their children and their children’s friends, I felt disheartened. What am I doing besides finding more creative ways for people to eat sugar and white flour and grease? The honest truth is that almost nothing I cook with people would I actually cook for myself - deep fried banana pancakes saturated with sugar, treacly soy milk (4 tablespoons of sugar to the glass), soy burgers dripping with oil, marmalade so sweet I can feel my teeth rotting just taking a single bite. Maybe there’s some sweet potato buried in the greasy pancake, but does eating more pancakes really helping anyone’s food security situation?

So here’s my dilemma: I can either present the kind of food I believe is healthy – whole grains, low sugar, high fiber, lots of veggies, nothing deep fried – and have people dislike it, or I can present the white flour, sugary, salty, grease-laden version and maybe slowly start to coax people to work more veggies and fruits into the mix. For now, I’ve made my choice, but I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Michael Pollan and Nicaragua

As you might imagine, I live in somewhat of a media dead zone. The only time I get caught up on the news is when I am sick enough to merit a hotel stay. Then I can watch CNN and the BBC to my heart’s content. But thanks to my wonderful friends, I am receiving a fairly consistent supply of good magazines, so at least I’m getting high quality media, even if it is old news by the time I get it. Recently I received a New York Times Magazine (August 2, 2009) from one of my aforementioned wonderful friends. The magazine contained an article by Michael Pollan bemoaning the state of American cookery. In it, Pollan plots the trajectory of American cooking from 1963 to the present. Basically, he says, over that period Americans have been cooking less and less, eating more and more processed food, and spending more time watching cooking shows on TV than we spend in our own kitchens.

Pollan links these patterns to the rise in obesity in America. At one point he sites research that shows, “the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income.” The average American, he says, now spends only 27 minutes per day cooking. Another study finds that “the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America.”

Now I’m not one to hate on Michael Pollan. But I look around me, and I wonder, What gives? I don't know any statistics on obesity in Nicaragua, but from my informal observation there is definitely a problem here. Many of my community members have diabetes, and by visual inspection, a majority of women over 15 are very overweight. A lot of men and children are too. Yet, none of what Pollan talks about in his article applies to rural Nicaragua. People here eat very little processed food; they are too poor to afford potato chips. And women here spend all day cooking. Every day they make tortillas, which involves manually taking the corn grains off of the cob, boiling them and stirring vigorously to remove the hull, walking to the mill to grind the corn, and then patting out each tortilla by hand. The whole process probably occupies about three hours out of every day, more than six times as much time as Americans are spending cooking. And that's just for one food item.

At one point in his article, Pollan quotes a food marketing research who says, “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy!” Maybe in the US, but here that’s still the way people prepare chicken. Nobody in my community knows what a Happy Meal is; they’ve never eaten a TV dinner or a microwave pizza. Not only is the bulk of the food people eat not processed, they actually grow it themselves. And there are definitely no cooking shows.

The weight problem here is something that Peace Corps Volunteers talk about a lot, in large part because we (especially female volunteers) want to figure out how to avoid getting really fat ourselves. In what I believe is a holdover from the Atkins days, many volunteers blame the high-carb diet. Indeed, it is not uncommon for meals to be composed solely of carbohydrates. On a single plate you might find potatoes, rice, beans, tortillas, and plantains. But people here have been eating starch this way for hundreds of years, and I doubt obesity and diabetes were as big a problem 100years ago as they are now. Other hypotheses include a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, an abundance of fried food, the effect of childbearing on women’s bodies, and lack of exercise (this does not apply to most men, who work in the fields).

I’ve been wondering about it since I got here five months ago, and the other day I was given a food product that I felt perfectly encapsulated what must have happened to the Nicaraguan diet. The food item in question is called a nuegano, and it is a large, thin, piece of deep-fried white flour, topped with a simple syrup made from white sugar and water. As I ate this piece of greasy deliciousness, I realized that none of its ingredients are indigenous to this diet, and all of them are processed outside of the home, unlike the rest of what people here eat. In fact, I realized, the only things people here eat in large quantities that they don’t themselves process all the way from farm to table, are sugar, flour, and oil. And those things are cheap and delicious. So even though the women are still spending the time cooking, these new ingredients are wreaking havoc on their health and the health of their families.

I think Michael Pollan makes a great point when it comes to American food culture, but based on what I’ve observed here, a decline in time spent cooking is incomplete as an explanation for America’s obesity epidemic. The pithy end to Pollan’s article is a quote from the same food marketing researcher who talked about the chicken. “Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” But if my experience in Nicaragua is any indication, it will take more than returning to the kitchen to solve America’s food problems.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tuesday in Esteli

I am in the habit of writing a poem about once every 2 to 3 years. I wrote one the other day, right on schedule - I think the last time was in 2006 - and I thought I would put it up here.

1. At least here it's not so g-d hot.
In Managua it hurt to go out
at midday. So I stayed in, reading
trashy novels, reclining on a
leatherette couch, slick and brown and cool.
The bus ride north was a slow ascent
through wispy clouds spritzing a fine mist.
Seven dollars and fifty-six cents,
or almost two-hundred cordobas,

2. will buy you a night in a clean place
with tile floors and a working TV.
For a strong cup go down the street. The
cafe is called The Light of the Moon,
in Spanish of course. A bacon egg
sandwich reminds me that this is not
America, as if I could have
forgotten. Gringos read guidebooks and
plan their next moves. I am planning mine

3. too. Dawdling in Esteli stop me
thinking about how alone I am
in my site, a tiny town too small
to even be called a village. It's
a pueblo - a pueblito, una
- of seven hundred.
There are no fruits or vegetables there,
which continues to surprise me. But
everything about Nicaragua

4. surprises me: How do the women
get so fat on rice and beans? And who
ever heard of riding six deep on
a rickety bicycle? What do
the dogs eat? Beans and rice, just like the
people. In this country I have learned
how rich I really am. On less than
ten American dollars I can
live comfortably for a whole week.

5. It hasn't rained in over a month.
Even as they laugh, the farmers wring
calloused hands. Even as they proffer
red beans, tortillas, coajada, the
women secretly wonder - is there
enough to make it until next year?
Who am I in the face of such a
calamity? With my salary
and my American bank account.

6. "I'll just join the Peace Corps" is something
you hear people say. Once they've signed up,
then what? The glamor is minimal,
I can promise you that much. Though time
does stretch out languorously in front
of you. Two years in a grass hut, or
a zinc-roofed cottage or a yurt will
teach you certain things about yourself,
some you might not want to know. But your

7. gratitude will save you. Or that is
my hope. A crappy bacon sandwich
and a cup of coffee are sometimes
all you need. An afternoon in a
foreigner cafe restores a sense
that one has had other lives and will
continue to accumulate more.
A chocolate bar, however grainy,
is still, after all, a chocolate bar.

8. With gratitude I eat the red beans,
the salty fresh cheese, the palmed out corn.
But I relish the days I can spent
not feeling responsible, the nights
in hotels, with pizza delivered.
It's not good pizza, but it's OK.
I was reading The New Yorker when
I found a poem written in nine-
syllable lines, nine lines, nine stanzas.

9. So I decided to write one, just
to pass time in this cafe, over
an egg-toast-bacon sandwich and a
cup of coffee, milk not included.
The bus leaves at half past one. I'll be
home by three. But how I wish for one
more night with fresh clean sheets and cable
television. Tonight it's back to
the mosquito net. Oh, lucky me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Project Update

A lot of development organizations work in the Nicaraguan countryside. Most of the time, they come through with tangible things to give out to people – a new latrine, materials for a garden, a pregnant cow, water barrels, even houses (e.g. the house I live in). The Peace Corps does not give out anything. We come with just our experience, our time, and our willingness to work. More than anything else, we are community organizers. Our job is to help the community get organized so that it can take on projects without outside assistance. I believe in the Peace Corps’s philosophy. But when every other gringo who comes through is handing out goodies, it makes my job pretty tough.

For example, I want to continue the sewing group that the last volunteer started. There are about twelve women who received sewing classes. However, there are only two machines between the twelve of them on which to practice. I am trying to get the group to pool its resources – maybe start a small savings bank, or hold bake sales, or whatever – to raise the money for more machines. It’s been hard to get anyone to commit to working on this project, though. Most of the women in the group are convinced that the only way to continue with the sewing is for the mayor’s office to give each woman a sewing machine. I’m not buying it. But everything must go at a Nicaraguan pace, which is to say, slowly. So for the time being, the group is going just meeting every week or so to do something – next week we’re making orange marmalade – with whoever happens to show up that day. I’m hoping that over time a committed group will emerge and that one of these little projects will turn into a small business proposition which we can use to raise money for the machines.

Another example: several weeks ago the mayor’s office asked that all the communities affiliated with this municipality make a list of community priorities. Two of the items on the list my community made were loans for women and financing for farmers. Great, I thought, here’s something I can really help out with. Part of my training was on how to start up a small community bank. Basically, each person brings a certain amount of money each week (the amount is determined by the group), and then that money is made available for small loans for a period of time and at an interest rate also determined by the group. At the end of the loan cycle – usually six months to a year – the money is divided up evenly or reinvested in a community project. It’s a great way to foster a culture of saving, which is decidedly absent in the Nicaraguan countryside.

My idea was that we could form two banks in the community - one for women and one for producers. The producers’ bank could ultimately turn into a seed bank. By next planting season we would have enough money to invest in disease-resistant seeds, which the farmers could take as loans and repay in kind at harvest time. When I held a meeting to discuss the idea, some people seemed interested. Mostly what they said, though, was that the mayor’s office or an NGO really should be giving the women interest-free loans. The federal government should be giving the seeds to farmers. Some people reluctantly agreed to come to a second meeting to form a bank, but on the day of the meeting no one showed up. Supposedly we’re going to try again this Friday, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’ve never been a super gung-ho capitalist, and I believe in the duty of a society to take care of its poorest members. Still, the longer I am here the more aware I become of my American capitalistic values, my entrepreneurial spirit. Everywhere I look I see a small business opportunity. Rotting tomatoes? Looks like a ketchup project. Cow poop? Looks like an organic fertilizer business. I also believe in being frugal and saving money. When the community members told me they didn’t have a dollar a week to put into a savings bank, my first thought was, “Okay, but you do have money for popsicles and chips?” I know people are buying them because the wrappers are all over the ground.

Volunteers who have been here longer all say that it takes a good six months to a year to get any bigger projects up and running. I’m trying to be patient. In the meantime, there’s my garden to take care of, my chicken coop to clean out and find chicks for, and lots and lots of books to read.

Into It:
Making super-spicy hot sauce with my neighbor
Eating fresh greens from my garden every day
Going to bed at 7:30pm and sleeping for a luxurious 9 and a half hours a night

Over It:
The heat of the mid-day sun at 12 degrees north latitude
A wasp colony hell-bent on having a home near mine
Cat-calls from the road crew that is currently working outside my front door (but soon there will be a paved road, meaning much shorter bus trips into town. Yay!)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Typical Day

5:00 am. Wake up to the sounds of roosters crowing and my neighbor cutting firewood. Crawl out from under my mosquito net. Stumble up the hill to the latrine.

5:15 am. As soon as I hear my neighbor making tortillas, set out for a run.

6:00 am. Back from my run, go to my neighbor’s house to fill up buckets with water for the day. make oatmeal and tea for breakfast.

6:30 am. Water my garden, weed, take care of my plants, maintain my compost pile, sweep my house and my patio, and straighten things up around the house.

7:30-10 am. Hammock time. Read books, write in my journal, kick around ideas for the novel I want to write, come up with blog posts, do Sudoku puzzles, listen to my ipod, play my guitar, think about projects I might do in my community.

10 am. Now that it’s good and hot, it’s time for the water sports. Go up the hill to my former host family’s house and bucket bathe. Then do whatever laundry I have. I find it’s easier to keep up with it if I do it every couple of days instead of letting it pile up. I also hand wash my shoes, a practice I intend to keep up once I return to the US.

11:00 am. Lunch – either beans, rice, and tortillas at my host family’s house or whatever I can whip up using my propane stove. Yesterday it was whole wheat pasta with peanut sauce and Swiss chard from my garden. Sometimes my next door neighbor gives me an egg or two if her chicken has laid that day.

12-3 pm. More hammock time.

3-5 pm. This is when I do the bulk of my actual work, since this is when people are available to meet. If there are no meetings scheduled then I go around and visit people. This involves a lot of sitting around and talking about the weather – it hasn’t rained in way too long, and all the producers are worried about it – a lot of super-sweet and very weak coffee, and a lot of sweet bread and corn cookies. Sometimes there is corn on the cob, but that is trailing off.

5:30 pm. Dinner. (See Lunch)

6-7 pm. Hang out with my host family.

7-8 pm. I’m trying to get into the new soap opera, Rastro de Analia (Analia’s Face), since my whole host family – aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings – watch it every night. But the plot is pretty cheesy. Basically Analia is a sexy undercover spy who is trying to get even with the people who killed her lover. There are a lot of costume changes into ever more revealing dresses that show off Analia’s fake boobs and long legs. They should probably call the show something else, because the chick’s face is definitely not the focus.

8 pm. Go back to my little house and read in bed until I fall asleep.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Since arriving in my community, I have become acutely aware of my relationship with plastic. There is no trash pick up in this town. I imagine that this arrangement wasn't a problem before the advent of plastic packaging. People could just throw their corncobs wherever, and they would dry out and decompose. Same thing goes for any other kind of organic waste. But now almost everything comes with plastic - from bars of soap to bags of fruit to bottled drinks. And there is nowhere for it to go. Many people continue to treat all garbager as though it were as innocuous as corncobs; hence, the town is littered with chip wrappers, shredded shopping bags, and crushed soda bottles. For my own waste, I've started a compost pile, which takes care of most of what I generate - unlike my Nicaraguan friends, I'm not comfortable just chucking stuff - but the plastic I don't know what to do with. I save bottles for reuse as seed trays, but that still leaves me with all kinds of plastic packaging. Currently, I save it up and dump it in a waste basket in one of the bigger towns.

I'd like to say that I was working on eradicating plastic from my life, but if corn takes first place as the root of Nicaraguan culture, plastic might come in a close second (ditto for America). Plastic chairs are a must for receiving visitors in one's home. Without them, the social fabric of Nicaragua might come apart. Plastic water vessels are also indispensible, as the town only has running water for two hours a day. On my meager salary, which is not even as meager as what most Nicaraguans live on, it would be practically impossible to furnish my home without relying on Plastinic, the country's chain store where all things plastic are sold. Everything in my PC medical kit is packaged in plastic. I also must admit that I cherish packaged foods in a way that I never did in the relatively parasite-free land of my birth.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that doing without plastic does not seem either realistic or desireable. At the same time, it is important to recognize that plastic doesn't just go away. We as a species are choking out the oceans with plastic garbage (look up the Eastern Garbage Patch). Here in my community plastic trash is a horrible eyesore. Even when it finds its way to a landfill, our plastic trash will basically never decompose.

Plastic is a case in point for th edifferences between environmental problems in Nicaragua and in the US. Here, environmental problems are immediate and in your face. Pesticide use is contaminating the rivers that many people still use to wahs their clothing and themselves, and deforestation is changing rainfall patterns, causing farmers to lose crops. As in the case of plastic, there are good reasons why people keep spraying - otherwise they might lose their crops to pests or diseases - and cutting down trees - they need the firewood and the farmland. But environmental issues are never simple. If they were, they probably wouldn't become issues in the first place.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Corn Country

I was listening to the radio the other day, when I heard a commercial for a festival in one of the towns near my community. "We'll be celebrating corn," the announcer said, "the root of our society." I have heard people say other things to this effect about the centrality of corn in Nicaraguan culture. I have also witnessed it first hand. Every day the men in my community go out ot work in the corn fields, while at home the women process the mature plant into tortillas, breads, crackers, corn-on-the-cob, and any number of other things. People here have a daily, intimate relationship with corn. It is their livelihood and their nourishment. People here love corn. They identify with corn.

Since hearing that radio announcement, I've been trying to come up with an analog in American culture. What is at the root of our society? Wheat? Most of use probably eat flour every day. Corn syrup? Honestly, we probably produce more corn than Nicaragua does. Petroleum? Americans do depend heavily on oil. Apples? Apples are quintessentially American - Johnny Appleseed, "American as apple pie". All of these things certainly pertain to American culture, but none of them really has the resonance that corn has in Nicaragua. With none of these do we have the kind of hands-on, dependent, loving relationship that Nicaraguans have with corn.

After several days of deliberation, my best hypothesis as to the root of American culture is the automobile. I'm not being glib. Think about it - most Americans have a daily relationship with their cars. They depend on the car for their livelihood;without it they wouldn't be able to get to work. We use cars to meet our basic needs for food and clothing. We mark life transitions with the car - from the carseat to the backseat to the front seat, and 16 to the driver's seat.Buying one's first car is an important step on the path to adulthood. We drive to weddings and celebrations in limousines. We ride to our final resting place in a hearse. There are plenty of songs about cars - Greased Lightning, Born to Run, etc. We build our cities and suburbs around automobile transportations. We go on family outings and take road trips in our cars. Some people make a kind of mobile nest out of their cars, keeping toiletries, changes of clothing, food, and all kinds of other things in their cars. People listen to music, have important conversations, and do some of their best thinking in cars. People name their cars. They cry when their cars die. Yep, I'm convinced that cars are to our culture as corn is to theirs.

I'd be very interested ot hear any alternative hypotheses as to the basis of American culture. And stay tuned for my next post, on plastic.

Garden update: garlic is growing great; spinach, kale and carrots have sprouted; lettuce seeds were carted off by an ant colony. Can't win 'em all.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Packing List

While I was in the process of applying to the Peace Corps, reading blogs written by current and past volunteers became somewhat of an obsession. Without fail every PCV blogger includes a list of most and least useful items they brought with them. I think it's time for me to make the obligatory packing list post, on the chance that any Peace Corps applicants are reading this.

Best things I brought:

1. a head lamp. Everyone lists this, and with good reason. It's great for reading in bed when the power goes out (which is a lot) or for making late-night trips to the latrine. (Just try not to look down once you're in there.)

2. a thermarest camping mattress. This was a last-minute addition after I read a PCV blogger's description of the mattress in her host family's house. I have been thankful for it every night.

3. ipod and good speakers. Also a set of items I give thanks for every day. The speakers I purchased were called iMaingo2. I highly recommend them. I also bought a set of rechargeable batteries to use with the speakers, which was a great choice as well. Apparently batteries here are both expensive and of poor quality. Plus, I wouldln't even know where to find them.

4. sun hat. A must-have if you plan to walk anywhere or do anything outside during the middle of the day.

5. duct tape. I wrapped a bunch around both of my water bottles, and it has come in handy many times already.

6. a pair of lightweight pants to sleep in. Great for protection against mosquitoes and fleas. The mosquito net the Peace Corps provides is great - unless a mosquito happens to be in it. It also does nothing for fleas (which are present in most homes with a dog, i.e. most homes).

7. a bath puff. I feel much cleaner when I have something to scrub myself with, especially in cold water bucket baths, which are all I take.

8. yoga mat and strength bands. I've been trying to stay in shape, despite the high-carb diet. Everyone says male volunteers get really skinny because they lose their muscle mass and female volunteers get fat eating tortillas and beans and rice.

9. American foods like cherries, almonds, cranberries and dried apricots. It was really fun for me to share some of these things with my host family and to see their reactions to these (for them) exotic foods.

10. my favorite clothes. I got a lot of recommendations from people about what to bring for rain, for heat, for sun, for modesty, for whatever. I have found that the things that I've enjoyed having the most are the things I most enjoyed wearing at home. That said, I plan on ruining everything I brought between the cement wash slab and the barbed wire I hang my clothing on to dry.

Things I brought and haven't used much:

1. a computer. I think the laptop would have been really great to have, if it hadn't stopped working. I'm still waiting to see if I can get it fixed in Managua, but I'm not holding my breath.

2. solar shower. Basically a black bag you can fill with water and put in the sun to get hot so as not to have to take a cold shower. A great idea in theory, but I haven't really used it. The showers are cold, but it's so hot here I don't really mind. Maybe I'll start using it to wash my dishes once I'm living in my new place.

3. solar panel ipod charger. This would have been really great if I had ended up in a site without electricity, but I didn't. So I haven't used it.

Into it: the internet cafe I go to sells ice cream bars
Still getting used to it: the fact that I will not have regular access to a flushing toilet for the next two years

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Spare Tire

My host mom loves to tell me that I am going to get fat in Nicaragua. She tells me all the time that soon I am going to have a llanta (tire) of fat around my midsection. And not a small tire, either. She says I´m going to have a llanta de tractor. I tell her I´d rather keep my llanta de bicicleta and hope it doesn´t turn into a llanta de motorcycle.

But my host mom is probably correct that I will be gaining weight here, since it seems like all I eat is corn. I eat corn tortillas with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I eat corn on the cob for a snack, and for dessert I eat corn pudding. I drink both hot and cold corn beverages, sweetened and unsweetened. I eat soups thickened with corn flour. I eat corn cookies, corn crackers, and corn breads. I´m getting a little sick of corn, but it is the basis of the diet here, and we are at the height of the corn harvest.

I am working on planting a garden, both so that I might have something to eat other than corn and to have something to do that will help me burn off some of the corn calories I´ve been so abundantly consuming. My garden is going to be in the front of the house I will soon be renting, next door to my host family´s house.

Not a lot of people have family gardens here because there are so many things that can go wrong with a garden. A horse can eat it. A chicken can scratch through it looking for worms and seeds. A pig can root it up. A fungus can grow on it. Insects can infest it. A virus can destroy it. But I´m trying anyway.

The day I set out to dig, my next door neighbor (who is also my host mom´s sister-in-law) came over to help. So did my land lord. And so did my neighbor´s son. With their help, what would have taken me all day took only a couple of hours. The whole time I kept thinking, Where else but in Nicaragua would my neighbors come out to help me dig my garden? The whole time we joked about how much of our llantas we were going to lose sweating like this. The four of us took turns with a pick axe, and after about an hour we had dug a three meter by three meter plot. I´m going to plant carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, watermelons - all of which are known and loved here - as well as a few crops that people here are unfamiliar with - kale, spinach and swiss chard. (When I showed my host mom my seed packets, she looked at the spinach and asked "Is this broccoli?")

In this picture of my house you can see where my garden is going to be - right out front. I can´t wait to get some chicken wire up and get started planting.

Names, a few favorites
Best sibling names - Marjelly and Marjulie
Best dog name - Escott, after the dog on the Scott toilet paper package
Best mis-spelling of a PC volunteer´s name - Hering, for Erin

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Agriculture and Food Security

I have been in my site for four days now. Everyone says the first few months are the hardest because we have no schedule at all, and it is up to the volunteer to figure out how to achieve the project goals. The overarching mission of the Agriculture project is to increase the food security of the community. Basically, the idea is to improve people´s diets while also helping them to make a more secure living.

We work with three groups in society - producers (mostly men), women, and young people. With the producers we might help them make organic fertilizers and pesticides or help them to organize a producers cooperative. With the women we may start a community bank or help to create family gardens or work with a group to earn income from value-added products like jams or teas or bread. With the youth we might start a school garden or a tree nursery. The scope of our work is very broad, and we can really do anything that the community wants, which is the project´s biggest advantage but also its biggest challenge.

My strategy is to try to move forward with projects that involve members of each of the three groups mentioned above. The other day I spoke with the director of the secondary school in my town, and he seemed interested in a composting project and a tree nursery. Today I´m having a meeting with one of the teachers to talk about coordinating something. I also met with some of the members of the community bank that the last volunteer started. They are very interested in having my help getting started again. I also talked to one of the farmers who is also on the local citizen´s government council. I am going to one of their meetings this Friday.

So in week one, things are going well. I still have a lot to learn about how things work in my town economically, politically, and socially. And the process of gaining people´s trust is long. But as of week one I am very optimistic. Seeing this rainbow on my first afternoon in site seemed like a sign. (It was actually a complete arch, but I couldn´t capture the whole thing.)

Used to it - people commenting on whether I am more or less gorda than other people
Still don´t get it - ¿Why do so many Nicaraguans shower in their underwear?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cultural Whiplash

Being in the Peace Corps requires you to be able to fluidly handle rapid changes from one type of environment to another. They should probably include it as a requirement in the job description. I´m not just talking about the fact that during the rainy season you might at any moment be soaking wet when not minutes before you were slathering yourself with sunscreen for protection from Nicaragua´s brutal midday rays. Nor am I refering just to the reality that a volunteer, especially an Ag volunteer, should be prepared to walk through mud, over rocks, or across a field at virtually any moment, regardless of how he or she is dressed or what activity was planned for the day. No, the most difficult transitions are those that remind us of the differences between the way of life that most Americans are accustomed to and the way that the majority of Nicaraguans live.

This week was a case in point. Finally, after three long months of training, three months of language classes and technical trainings and living with a rural host family, we have made it to official volunteer status. (Hooray!) We spent the last half of this week in Managua in order to complete some final administrative tasks and to receive briefings from the US embassy to Nicaragua and from USAID. During this time we´ve been staying in a hotel, a really nice hotel, close to the Peace Corps office. We´ve been going to meetings in air-conditioned offices where everyone is dressed in business casual attire. Yesterday, our Swearing In ceremony took place in a really nice hotel. Afterwards we had a dinner at the home of one of the Country Directors for Peace Corps Nicaragua. She served us all kinds of foods I hadn´t expected to see for the next two years - goat cheese, spaghetti with meat sauce, olives, red wine. It was almost painful how much like America her house felt - despite the fact that her backyard was filled with tropical plants and surrounded by razor wire.

During this short trip, I seem to have developed a severe case of cultural whiplash. I´d just started to adjust to living in a house whose kitchen has no floor, rarely seeing a flushing toilet, and eating rice and beans three times a day when I was whisked away to a posh B and B with hot showers and a swimming pool. Three nights ago I was sleeping under a mosquito net and praying I wouldn´t have to get up to use the latrine in the middle of the night. Last night I was drinking rum and cokes by the pool and eating Pizza Hut and sushi (delivered to the hotel, free of charge).

This morning I´m enjoying a few more minutes of free wireless internet before I go to eat an American-style breakfast and then head out for my site. I feel very ready to do this job - or at least I did until they teased me with air conditioning and cable TV - but I´m expecting to have to decompress for a while once I get to my site. It´s not the campo lifestyle that´s the hard part - it´s the back and forthing that really gets me out of whack.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Farewell Fatima

So this is the end of training. Yesterday we attended a product fair with the youth group we´ve been working with during training. The purpose of the project was twofold. First, the youth were supposed to gain confidence by coming up with a new product, making it, selling it, and presenting it at the fair. For the Peace Corps Volunteers it was a way of getting our feet wet working with youth and helping a group to create a value added product.

The fair was our final training activity. For the next week we have some administrative things to do, and on Friday we swear in as volunteers. It´s kind of a bittersweet time for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, four of the people in my training group have left or are leaving the Peace Corps for a variety of reasons, including the closest friend I made during training. Not that we were going to be serving in sites near each other, but it´s still a huge blow to my morale. And for another thing, I am actually very sad leaving the host family I have lived with for the past three months.

My host mom, Melida, asked me yesterday what was the most valuable thing I learned during my training. I told her that the best part of training for me (besides milking a goat) was getting to live with this family. And I meant it. When I arrived here three months ago I was kind of like a baby. Melida had to teach me how to wash my hands - no joke. Since then I have learned to love gallo pinto and beans (even after learning that the bean pot sits for three days unrefrigerated). I have made tamales (corn meal and cheese cooked in a banana leaf) and pinolillo and sorted beans. I´ve learned how to wash my clothing in a cement pila, and I´ve asked the definitions of a hundred words I didn´t know.

During this whole time I´ve been the beneficiary of an incredible outpouring of hospitality, warmth, and caring. My host family may be poor, but their generosity is overwhelming. I´ve been showered with gifts - mountains of fresh fruit, a keychain with my name on it, a wooden bracelet, a pair of shower shoes, and a grain sack to keep my yoga mat from getting dirty on the floor. But more importantly, this family has shared their home and their lives with me. My host mom has talked to me about the joys and sadnesses of her life, I´ve gotten to watch as my host sister-in-law (wife of one of my four host brothers) went from being five months to eight months pregnant, and my little six year old host sister has shared her drawings with me. My host brothers have split coconuts for me with a machete, given me rides in the family bicycle taxi, and walked me to the bodega when my host mom insisted it was too dangerous for me to walk alone. They´ve also asked me to translate the lyrics of all kinds of songs, including Celine Dion´s My Heart Will Go On and Fifty Cent´s entire catalog.

I´m sure I will form relationships with the people in my new community, but I will not forget the connections I have formed here.

Into it - almost being a full-fledged volunteer
Over it - losing members of the group

Monday, July 20, 2009

Animal Husbandry

This weekend we went to Rancho Ebenezer, a training center for sustainable small animal management. Our hands-on trainings have all been great – making compost, growing a school garden, starting a tree nursery, food processing – but the animals were the best, sin duda. At the Rancho, they keep goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, cows, and tropical sheep (yes, there are tropical sheep, they just don’t have wool).

My new favorite animals are goats, chickens, and rabbits. I’ve never really considered myself an animal person, beyond cats, that is. But today I got down with some barnyard creatures, and I was pretty into it. At 6 this morning I reported to the goat stable and learned how to milk a goat. I wasn’t that great at it, but I was at least able to make the milk come out. After milking, we fed the goats a mixture of leaves from a variety of tropical leguminous plants.

Then it was off to the chicken pen. We were treating them with a prophylaxis for a common respiratory infection that kills a lot of chickens. Each one had to get a drop of solution in its eye. I won’t lie. I was scared at first to try to catch the chicken and hold it still. But once I caught one, I was hooked. Running around after chickens is really, really fun. Our next lesson was on how to give a chicken a bath. At the Rancho, they bathe the chickens once a month in a solution of water and neem leaf. Neem is a tree whose leaves have a repellant effect on insects, so it is used to keep any little bugs from living in the chickens’ feathers. Bathing the birds requires holding them under their wings and dipping them into a bucket up to their necks. The best part is that once the chickens come out of the bath they stagger around drunkenly until they’ve dried off a little bit. The weight of the water just gets them all out of whack.

Post neem bath

The bath was a little much for this guy to handle

At the rabbit hutch, we felt a rabbit’s belly to see if she was pregnant, watched two rabbits mate (takes about 3 seconds), and saw another rabbit give birth (8 babies in less than a minute). The great thing about all of these animals is that they are really easy to take care of, and they all can eat plants that serve other purposes but cannot be eaten by humans. The Rancho feeds its animals using the same plants it uses for reforestation and soil conservation and regeneration.

Among the other topics of the weekend were:
• how to tell if a female pig is in heat,
• how to clip a goat’s toenails,
• how to test a goat for mastitis before milking,
• how to castrate a baby pig (accompanied by a really disturbing demo),
• how to kill and skin a rabbit (surprisingly easy, not that I did it myself),
• how to build worm composting systems using old tires (very cool, something
I’m planning on doing at my site)
• and much more.

A lot of campo families have chickens. Rabbits are less common, and goats are pretty rare. Cows and pigs are both really common in my site, but rabbits and goats have a lot of advantages over these animals. Mainly, they produce more given a smaller quantity of food. And in the case of goats, they will eat practically anything. Since goats also do really well eating green leaves from trees, instead of needing pasture land, they also go perfectly well with reforestation projects. Culturally, getting people to switch from cow´s milk to goats milk is really difficult. But I´m really excited to start promoting the use of these animals when I get to my site.

A few things that seem normal to me now - eating every meal with only a spoon, hanging my clothing to dry on barbed wire, being woken up by roosters every morning
Stil not normal - when my host mom cleans the floor of my room with gasoline, pasta served with rice (yes, we must have at least 4 types of carbs on every plate)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Site Visit

This past week I finally got to see the community where I’ll be living for the next two years. Site visit is the week we’ve been waiting for since training began 10 weeks ago. Last Friday the 17 of us traveled to Esteli to meet with our community counterparts, and the following day each counterpart-volunteer pair left separately. I felt so sick with nerves that during the bus ride to my site I thought I might have to ask the bus driver to pull over so I could be sick. Thankfully that did not happen.

My counterpart, Don Paulo, took me to his house and his wife served me some very sweet coffee and bread she had baked. I started to relax a little. Then the two of them walked me over to the house where I’ll be staying for my first six weeks before I’m allowed to live on my own. When I met my new host mom I started to really feel good about the site. She was great, so funny and warm. “No tenga pena, Laurie,” she told me. “Sientese como en su casa.” Basically, Don’t be shy with us, Our house is your house. My new host mom, Dona Ester is a teacher in the local school. She is a single mom with three grown kids. The two boys work in the fields every day, and my host sister recently graduated with a degree in Small Agriculture. I’m really excited to get to know her better, especially since we’re close to the same age and in the same field.

Here´s the house where I´ll be living

From what I could tell in my short visit, the town is going to be great for me. It is small – only about 100 families. They absolutely loved the previous volunteer, which is great because she really seems to have paved the way for me. “The last volunteer went running a lot, so the people are used to that,” they told me. Great. “And she loved to dance. So we’ll expect you to get down at the fiestas.” Amazing. “And the last volunteer was very independent. She liked to live alone. We’ve got a little house all picked out for you.” Incredible. “We can’t wait to bake with you, since the last volunteer was really into baking.” Perfect way to get integrated into the community.

Some replacement volunteers I’ve talked to have said that they didn’t like being compared to the volunteer before them. So far, I just feel lucky that I don’t have to explain myself. The people in my town understand what the Peace Corps is, more or less, and what types of projects I might be doing. Even more importantly, they are really excited to have me there, since they have such warm feelings towards the volunteer who was there before me.

My host grandma making coajada

It’s very hard to tell what kind of work I’ll be doing in the community, though I think that’s true of every site. The community really lacks organization, since there is a lot of tension and mistrust between the two political parties. Apparently, the hostility is so intense that Sandinistas won’t come to a meeting if they know that Liberals will be there and vice versa. That might make community organizing a bit difficult. I’m very optimistic, though, and I have a lot of ideas for how to get started gaining confianza.

Otherwise, I’m pretty excited to live in my town. It is on the road between Esteli and Jinotega, which means that buses come by frequently. There are also several volunteers within an easy walk, bus ride, bike ride, or horseback ride. Yes, horseback. I will be living in Nicaragua’s Wild West. The department of Jinotega is serious cowboy country. I saw a lot of cowboy hats, boots, and of course, cows. My host family has two, so I’ll be drinking fresh raw milk and eating a soft cheese called coajada every day. I already learned how to make the cheese with my host grandmother.

This is my host mom

I can already tell that I will be fiending for vegetables in my site, since I didn’t eat a single one in my four days there. But I am also really impressed with the self-sufficiency of my town. People grow corn and beans, and they keep cows. Their diet primarily consists of corn tortillas, boiled beans, and milk. I get the sense that if this town were completely cut off from the outside world, that not a whole lot would change. They’ve only had electricity for the past 8 years and running water only for the past 4.

This is our living room

I’m really excited to go back and get comfortable in my new home, but I’m also really sad to be leaving Fatima. When I came back yesterday I felt like I was coming home. I had really missed my Fatima host mom’s cooking. I was so happy to have a big cabbage salad and a plate of fruit waiting for me here. I certainly won’t forget how good this family has been to me during my training.

Into it – only two weeks of training left!
Sad about it – having to leave the friends I’ve made in training

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Material Culture

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Seventy-five percent of rural people live with incomes that are considered to be poverty-level or extreme poverty-level. I’m certain my host family would be included in that statistic. There’s no denying that life here is tough and opportunities are limited. And yet, there are many aspects of living at this material standard that I really appreciate. I love the fact that our food is incredibly fresh – the other day we bought squash from the neighbor that was harvested just that same day, and this past Sunday my mom made a beef stew made from a cow that was slaughtered that morning. You don’t get much fresher that that.

We don’t use a lot of electricity, since we’re mostly in bed by 8:30. This family of eight shares one bathroom, and remarkably there’s never a line. I don’t even miss hot showers. On the contrary, every day I’m grateful that in the shower it’s actually possible to get a sunburn or have a mango fall on my head, and that I get to listen to the next door neighbor’s parrot singing and chortling to himself and calling his own name. I love that we mostly travel by foot or bicycle taxi, sometimes in moto-taxi (basically a three-wheeled motorcycle) or in a bus, rarely in a car. I love that people use the things they own until they are absolutely and completely used up. Before coming here, I had never imagined the many uses for an empty plastic coke bottle (watering can, planter, fly trap, funnel, drip irrigation system, soap dish, etc.) or a used bicycle inner tube.

It’s not that people aren’t poor - they certainly are. And it’s not that Nicaraguan society couldn’t benefit from an influx of well-spent money – a functioning emergency health care system would be a good start – but there are many ways that people’s lives could be improved that are much more about education and organization than they are about material wealth. In many communities, a well-organized co op could do much more to provide employment and better people’s lives by taking advantage of the resources that already exist in the community than could outside investment or aid. For example, with a concerted community effort a town could turn the garbage people burn in front of their houses into a saleable product, compost. Similarly, a lot of the health problems that plague rural people – diabetes, malaria, diarrhea – could be greatly improved with simple changes – eating less sugar, getting rid of standing water, washing hands more frequently. Basically, I am not at all convinced that having more stuff – be it cars, or paved roads, or fancier clothes, or whatever else – would make people’s lives better. To date, much of the stuff that has come in from outside has actually made people less healthy – chemical pesticides and fertilizers that people apply by hand since there’s no money for protective gear or machinery, packaged food loaded with sugar and fat, sweatshops that provide jobs but result in major respiratory problems for a lot of their workers, etc.

The question that I keep asking myself is this: Is there any society on earth that has resisted the trap of development? In other words, is there any place that has figured out how to better its population´s standard of living without just exchanging one broken system for another? Could Nicaragua become a more wealthy country not by providing jobs that compel people to commute in private cars and allow them to buy processed food shipped from far away, but by recognizing and taking advantage of the incredible richness that is already here? Would it be possible for Nicaragua to achieve gender-equality, to offer young people increased life choices and life chances, and to create a health care system that serves its population, without rejecting the simple abundance that people here take for granted and that is so coveted in so-called developed societies?

Sometimes I wish the people I meet could just see inside my head. I wish that instead of feeling nervous about whether I’ll like the campesino food she feeds me, my host mom could see what I’m thinking. Which is, Oh my God, food snobs in the US would kill to have this much local food on their plate at one time! I wish my host brothers could see how much more impressed I am with how they climb coconut trees and wield machetes than I am with their imitation iphones and DVD collections. Rather than apologizing for not having a car to give me a ride, I wish people could see how much I appreciate living in a town that doesn’t depend on fossil fuel transportation – another goal of high-minded US environmentalists. It’s not that I don’t think I have a lot to offer here based on the knowledge I have. It’s more that I believe the US has just as much to learn from Nicaragua as the Nicaraguans have to learn from us.

Into it - baby corn that doesn´t come from a can
Over it - mosquitoes that just don´t quit

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I´ve been with my host family for over six weeks now, and this weekend I finally felt like part of the family. Sunday morning I told my mom I wanted to cook an American meal for them. I decided omelettes and home fries would be a good cross-cultural meal, nothing too ambitious or foreign. Once I am in my site I am going to try to cook for people more often, both so that I can offer hospitality as a way of gaining confianza (trust) and so that I can introduce some dietary novelties - green vegetables, for example. But for my first foray into cooking for Nicaraguans, I went for the easy sell. The omelettes were pretty simple - some queso coajada (I tried for mozarella and failed), onions, and oregano inside - and my mom helped me fry them, at which time I understood why my refried beans taste so delicious (hint: 3 letters, starts with O ends with L). To the papas fritas, I added some rosemary that I found at the plant nursery next door. Both the papas and the huevos were a hit. And of course they served it all with rice and beans and fried plantains.

After that lunch, my host sister-in-law offered to paint my toenails, which I took as a huge compliment since she´s been very shy with me up until now. I am now sporting a french manicure on my toenails. Unfortunately, all the colors she had were pretty much the same as the color of my skin, so you can´t see it too well.

It´s been a great cooking week all around, actually. On Friday we made mantequilla de mani (peanut butter). Even though this is a peanut-producing country, the butter is practically unknown. My family, especially my little host sister, was really into it. The soymilk and soy meat we made yesterday were also very popular. I´ve been in soy city since then, eating tortas de soya (deep fried soy patties), soy chorizo (sauteed soy with spices), and drinking soymilk with pinolillo, the national drink of Nicaragua.

To make pinolillo you toast whole corn and cacao and add cinnamon, cloves, and something they call pimiento de olor (odoriferous pepper). My mom mixed the ingredients in a bucket, then sent me to the mill to grind it. For ten cordobas (50 cents) the family with the mill ground it for me twice, leaving a fine powder that smelled wonderful. Back at home, we mixed it with soymilk and sugar. Pure deliciousness. Now that I´m cooking over a wood stove, taking things to the mill by myself, and drinking pinolillo, I am really starting to feel like I belong here.

Into it - dreaming in Spanish, very tight jeans like the Nicas wear, the rainy season (aka ¨winter¨)
Over it - flea bites, mildew

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mirando Quien Viene

One of my favorite things to do here is to sit outside on the wooden bench by my house. Just watching who comes by - mirando quien viene - is better than television. All manner of transportation rolls, gallops, and meanders down my street. The biking is truly a thing to behold. More often than not, there is more than one person on the bike - a mother with her child, a guy and his girlfriend. Sometimes three or even four kids will be perched on the same bike - one on the seat, one on the top tube, one standing on pegs, and one on the handle bars. People also bike by carrying all kinds of things - machetes, big baskets, coolers full of tortillas or nacatamales, plants that they've purchased from the nursery.

There are a couple of kinds of three-wheeled transport as well. The caponeras or triciclos are three-wheeled bicycles with a bench to sit on in the front, covered by a shade. The kids that drive them are all in their teens or early twenties, and they hang out together at a few critical intersections, kind of like bike messengers. They'll drive you around town for a couple of cordobas (about 10 cents), which is great for people in my town because most of them don't like to walk. There are also the mototaxis, which are basically motorcycles with three wheels. They are really built to hold about three people - the driver plus two passengers in the back - but in a pinch they can accomodate up to six. As with the bicycles, people carry all manner of things with them in the mototaxis and triciclos. Today I saw a mototaxi with a big basket on top that held, no joke, two dogs. Not puppies either. Dogs.

Sometimes horse-drawn or ox-drawn carts pass by carrying milk or the harvest from a farm. It was from one of these carts that my host mom purchased the milk I insisted on drinking cold, and which made me really sick for about a day and a half.

The evangelical church across the street just adds to whatever scene is occuring in front of the house. Around 5 o'clock each night they start singing religious songs about El Senor. The church is just a group of benches and little lectern, but their meetings are always fully amplified. Plus I think they must have some agreement that the guitar-player's instrument must be completely out of tune and that the person who holds the microphone must be the singer with the worst voice.

Mirando quien viene is not a passive activity, either. The bicyclists passing by like to mirar right back at me. Sometimes my gringa face inspires them to rattle off whatever English words come to mind at that moment - hello, goodbye, I love you. "Adios," I say back.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dance, Gringo, Dance!

I´ve become something of a salsa dancing addict in the past year, so I was psyched when the Peace Corps placed me in Latin America. Little did I know then that Nicaragua is basically a dancer´s purgatory. Every day I hear my favorite songs blasting out of people´s stereos - reggeaton, bachata, salsa, cumbia, merengue - and yet it doesn´t seem like anyone really knows how to do any of the dances. I´ve been so hard up, as has my friend Hannah, that the other day the two of us started dancing outside of my house to the cumbia my host brothers were listening to. My host mom got really excited. ¨We can have a party here!¨she exclaimed. ¨We´ll have a DJ and you and all the other gringos can dance.¨

I wasn´t sure exactly what she meant, but I had been to a party the weekend before at another trainee´s house, so I kind of had an idea about what a Nica-style dance party would be like. Sure enough, last Saturday at 5 pm the DJ arrived in a pickup truck loaded with speakers. He set them up and commenced to play first the Ghostbusters theme song, then Funktytown, and Nirvana´s cover of The Man Who Sold the World. Those songs were just a warm-up apparently, because then the Latin music got started. He played my new favorite cumbias - the one about the guy who gets poked in the eye with a sharp object, and the one about the kleptomaniac named Maria, and all the others.

But nobody was dancing yet. Once the other PC trainees arrived, everyone started pressuring us to dance. This has become a familiar routine. It seems everyone´s favorite activity at these parties is to watch Gringo Dance Theater. It even happened at the club we went to in Esteli last week. A guy was actually using his camera to film us dancing, as if it were the most amusing thing he had ever seen.

At the party at my house I think the gringos must have danced for a full 15 minutes before anyone else joined in. It kind of makes you wonder what the people do for entertainment when we´re not here. It was also really strange to be in a simulated club environment when I was actually out on my host family´s dirt patio, though the music was certainly loud enough, and the lights were certainly flashy enough.

At one point I paused to watch the other gringos dance, and then I started to understand why everyone here enjoys GDT so much. First of all, we are pretty spastic. We aren´t at all like the restrained Nicaraguans, who kind of bob back and forth gingerly in time with the music (no spins or dips here, folks). What we lack in rythmic intuition, we make up for in raw enthusiasm. Also, I´ve noticed that making such an effort to comport myself according to Nicaraguan cultural norms means that when I cut loose, I really cut loose. I think all of us do. So if the people want to see some gringos dancing crazy, I´m happy to oblige.

Into it - cramming 18 people into a microbus, i.e. minivan; Nicaragua buses in general
Over it - nightly news that always features dead bodies

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mi Abuelita

One of the people I most admire here is my host mom’s mother – my host grandmother. Her name is Dona Luisa, and she must be in her seventies. She has nine children, eight of whom still live in this small town. Her grandparents lived in Masatepe, the larger town down the road from Fatima, and her grandfather was an immigrant from France.

Last night Luisa announced that she was going to plant her terreno, the family field that is about a 10 minute walk outside of town. I asked if I could come to help. We went out this morning - Dona Luisa, my host mom, three of my host brothers (I have four total), and I - before the sun got too hot. There were a couple of guys there already using a draft horse to plough the weeds under. We each took a bowl of beans and started walking down the plowed rows, dropping the beans in slowly, and kicking dirt over them.

After the beans were planted, we left the two guys and one of my host brothers there to plant the remaining part of the field with corn, while the rest of us went out to see the part of the terreno that is planted with fruit trees. We walked through a field of coffee trees, and my host grandma remarked that the harvest probably won’t be good this year, since there hasn’t been enough rain yet. We collected some fallen mangos – stragglers, since the season has really almost ended. My host grandma offered me the one ripe orange clinging to a small orange tree. It was tart and extremely juicy.

When we got to the avocado grove, my host mom told my brothers to go climb up the trees. They each scrambled up, at least 30 feet in the air, and started shaking. Avocados rained down. We collected them and wrapped them in tee shirts to carry them back. On the way, one of my host brothers picked up a big brownish ball-looking item from the ground, cut it open with a machete, and offered me a piece of orange fruit that tasted like papaya, only better. “It’s called mamey,” my host mom informed me.

While we walked back, I asked Luisa about the terreno. I asked her if the land had always been in the family. She explained that after the revolution, a lot of people left their land. This parcel had once belonged to a wealthy family, who left during the revolution. When the Sandinistas took power, they divided up land and gave it to peasants who had never owned land before. Now the family has four manzanas (an area of land slightly larger than an acre) that they plant each year. Before that time, the family had to rent land to plant it.

I really loved being out there this morning, following the family in one of its annual routines. My host family insists that they are poor people, and it’s true that they have very little in the way of material possessions as compared to North Americans. But there is wealth here too. The more time I spend learning from my host family, the more convinced I am of that fact.