Friday, May 29, 2009

More on Training

Peace Corps training in Nicaragua based in communities and is designed to be a kind of miniature version of our coming service. Which is great because it seems like we will be really well prepared by the time we get to our sites. It is also completely crazy because we are essentially cramming two years worth of work into twelve weeks. During this time we are expected to plant a large garden, start a tree nursery, work with a youth group to create a saleable product from local resources, read 20 books, and become proficient in Spanish. In our spare time we are supposed to complete reports, do homework assignments, and have talks with local people who can provide information that we aren’t able to cover in class. We also have technical training for three full days out of every week on topics ranging from food preservation to meeting facilitation to organic gardening to agribusiness techniques.

I shouldn’t complain because I am really excited about everything I am learning. Yesterday was the best day so far. We spent the whole day making food products. We made peanut butter, soy hamburgers, and pickles, among many other things. I got really excited to work with people in my community figuring out how they can augment their health and commercialize untapped food resources.

There are five people in my training group, all of whom are really great. I have a feeling we will become really close over the next three months. It’s great having a cohort of people with whom to share the craziness of total immersion in a foreign culture. We are living in a small town that is very poor by US standards but is probably doing okay by Nicaraguan standards. Everyone here seems to have enough to eat, and the houses are generally very well kept. The town is wired with electricity and running water. Because the water is rationed, most people keep the taps open. That way when the water is on, it goes into barrels or other vessels for future use. The system is generally okay, except in the case of one of the trainees in my group, whose family keeps a turtle in their pila. (A pila is the cement sink that all homes here have for washing hands and laundry.) He has decided to skip bucket bathing on the days when the water doesn’t flow from the shower head, though he said his host brother has no qualms about bathing in the turtle water.

A couple of nights ago my training group went to a meeting of the local GPC, a sort of governmental council that all towns in Nicaragua now have thanks to the work of the new administration. It was certainly interesting to see how a meeting is run here, and I could tell from the experience that meeting facilitation will probably be a challenge here. We listened to two straight hours of men (and it was all men talking, even though women were present on the council) pontificating about the problems of alcoholism, delinquency and violence in the community. Not one suggestion for action was presented, and every oration with punctuated with phrases like “Let me repeat that…” and “I return to say…” and “As I mentioned before…” On top of that the meeting was held at the local cock fighting ring, so there was also the issue of roosters cock-a-doodle-doodling at random intervals throughout the entirely of the meeting.

Things I am thankful for this week: my inflatable camping mattress (an excellent decision to bring it, since my mattress is about as thick as a folded sweater), my mosquito net, and the fact that I am not yet tired of rice and beans even though I eat it three times a day.

Things I could live without: the latrine, moquitos and chocorrones (the local equivalent of the june bug), open garbage fires.

Fatima Favorites

I’ve been in my training town for about half a week now. There is way too much to describe, so I think maybe it’s best to just share a top ten list (in no particular order) of the things I love right now.

Bucket Showers

My host family’s shower is an outdoor enclosure with an open roof. It has a spigot and supposedly there is running water, but I haven’t seen it work yet. But I don’t care, because I love bucket showers. To take one, I fill up a 5-gallon bucket from one of the barrels of water around the house. Then I soap myself up and sluice water from the bucket to rinse. It’s cold and refreshing, and I feel so clean afterwards. Unfortunately, I am not really allowed, or at least strongly discouraged from bathing after about 3 pm. People here believe that showers late in the day cause coughing and sore throats. Since I already have a cough, they really don’t want me to shower at night.

My Mosquito Net

I love my mosquito net. This is a standard issue Peace Corps item that everyone gets, and it is just fantastic. I have it strung up so it makes a big space for me to sleep in, like a canopy bed. I am so comfortable at night under that thing, and I don’t think any zancudos (the campesino word for mosquitoes) have gotten me in my sleep yet.

No Car Culture

Fatima is not a car town. Almost no one has a car. Everyone bikes or walks to get everywhere. Which is not to say that people here are particularly fit. In fact, most people seem to have an aversion to walking, either because of the heat or the dust or for some other reason. There are a lot of guys who make a living driving these big tricycles with seats in the front, sort of like a bicycle rickshaw. People will take one of those things just to get a few meters down the road. But really everything is within walking distance. Even the bigger town nearby. Most people take a bus to get to it (and by bus, I mean one of the minivans that pass by every so often), but it would really be a short walk. Friends and family are all within such easy walking distance that people constantly just drop by to have a fresco (fruit juice) and chat for a while.

Fruit Everywhere

It is mango season right now, and there are mangoes everywhere. It seems like every family has a mango tree by their house, and a lot of families also manage farm plots that have a lot of trees. It is also avocado season. Oranges are coming next, since it’s about to be winter. It is incredible how much natural abundance this town has.

Shade Trees

It is really hot here during the day, but there is always somewhere to find shade. Every house is covered by shade trees, and there are tons of places to sit and just enjoy a fresco or an helado (ice cream) under a shade tree. Yesterday I sat out in front of my house for several hours just watching the street. People passes by on bicycles and tricycles, on foot, and on horseback. A lot of people are curious about the gringos in town, so it was fun to wave and say hello. Much better than television. I only went in because the sun went down.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Week 1 Done

The sound of a mango dropping from a height of 20 feet onto a tin roof is startling, to say the least. I awoke in a panic on the first night of my homestay in the rural town of Fatima when one of the fruits basically fell on top of my head. But I guess night terrors are a small price to pay for fresh, ripe mangoes. They are everywhere in Fatima, the rural town where I will be training for the next 11 weeks.

I love my host family. My host mom feeds me huge meals and constantly offers me sugary fruit drinks called frescos. On a hot afternoon, there is nothing better than a cold pineapple fresco. And it is hot. Luckily my training town is at a slight elevation, so it cools off at night. I haven´t been sweating in my bed, and sometimes I even get cool enough to need a sheet.

In addition to the mangoes, I´ve also gotten to know some interesting local foods. Pipian is a squashlike vegetable I´ve been served a few times. There´s also a squash called chayote that I like. In general, the food is incredibly salty. And if it´s not salty it´s super sweet. My mom makes me hot milk with a splash of coffee in the morning, and she loads it up with what tastes like at least a few tablespoons of sugar. I keep telling her not to feed me so much, but the message must be getting lost in translation. I think after two years here I will probably be fat, diabetic, and have high blood pressure. But at least the food tastes really good. Fortunately for me, I love rice and beans. Yesterday I ate rice, beans, french fries, and cheese for breakfast.

As promised, the training schedule is rigorous. We have language classes three days a week for six hours. Another three days a week we have technical training on subjects ranging from how to avoid getting malaria to turning old tires into vegetable gardens. When we´re not training we´re supposed to be planning lessons to share with the youth groups we are supposed to be forming, planting a vegetable garden and starting a plant nursery in our communities, doing a ton of reading, and spending time getting to know our host families. It doesn´t leave a lot of time to, say, relax. Which is weird because the rest of the PC experience is supposed to be very tranquilo, as they say here.

I am really enjoying everything about this experience so far. There is so much to tell, and so much to learn, that I feel completely overwhelmed. But so far it´s all good.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Going to Fatima

Today is the last day of my orientation retreat and the last day I know I will have easy internet access for the next 12 weeks, maybe for the next 2 years. Today we will be going to our training towns. Mine is called Fatima. It is tiny. We are divided up into small groups based on language ability. I am with four other Ag volunteers - Aggies, as we are known. We are the advanced language group. Fatima is a really small town with only one paved road. All of us will be using latrine toilets, but we also all have running water and electricity in our training towns.

I am really excited to start training. Everything we've gotten from the PC has been incredibly high quality. I am truly impressed with this organization. It employs a great mix of Nicaraguans and North Americans. The security guy seems incredibly competent. We have four medical doctors on staff. Everyone on the training team seems to really know what they're doing. They gave us our medical kit, which includes all kinds of things - sunscreen, floss, antibiotics, pepto-bismol, you name it. I have had my first vaccine (typhoid) and taken my first dose of anti-malarials. No crazy dreams so far, but I'll keep you posted. We also were given a library's worth of books to read. We have books on how to be an effective volunteer, how to work with teenagers, how to teach adults, how to assess our communities, how to farm, how to process food, the history of Nicaragua, and on and on. Probably 20 books in all. Receiving them was like getting a Christmas present. I can't wait to absorb everything inside.

The group is interesting. As I said, there are several older people. One man is 76. I am so impressed with him. He has been married for 38 years. This is something he has always wanted to do, and his wife and family support him 100%. There is also a retired married couple and another older woman who I think is in her late sixties. I'm really inspired by the fact that these people are doing something that I think will be a challenge for me at my most robust. If all goes well, I might want to do this again in 40 years or so. The majority of the group is under 25, though.

I've been enjoying the food so far and luckily no one has gotten sick yet. The food is incredibly salty but otherwise pretty bland. Not a lot of spice, unfortunately. We drink a lot of "juice" (a.k.a. sugar water). Not sure what the food will be like once I get to my host family. I also don't know how many people will be living there. My host mom has four (or was it five?) kids ranging in age from 6 to 22. Crazy. Not sure how many still live at home. I think the oldest boy is married.

75% of Nicaragua's population is under 25, so there is a big focus on working with young people. They don't have a lot of opportunities here in Nica, so one of our goals is to help them figure out ways to augment their livelihoods in the small towns where they live, so that they don't end up moving to Costa Rica or the US.

I am really looking forward to our training projects. We will be starting a garden plot for our host families, doing a lot of composting (including worm composting. yay!), and doing some sort of commercialization project with a group of teenagers (e.g. making jam or baking bread or something like that and selling it at a product fair).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

First Day

I have been in Nicaragua for almost 24 hours now. We are staying in what amounts to a compound somewhere in Managua. Its exact location is and will likely remain a mystery, given that I have not seen (or heard of the existence of) a detailed map of the city. But that doesn’t matter much, since we will only be in Managua until tomorrow. No volunteers serve here in the capital.

Last night I had my first plate of gallo pinto, the national dish. It is (surprise, surprise) beans and rice. After dinner, I promptly went to bed on a mattress that folded like a taco when I sat on it. I was so exhausted I hardly cared. Based on the food I have eaten here so far, I expect to be gordita after these two years. In addition to the gallo pinto, last night’s dinner included deep fried tortillas wrapped around strips of beef, cabbage slaw slathered in ketchup and something resembling mayonnaise, and to wash it all down, a glass of Coca Cola.

Our main order of business during this three-day retreat in Managua is to determine where we will be training. We will be placed in small towns in groups of three or four, based on our language ability. The levels go from Novice to Intermediate to Advanced to Superior. The diagnostic test was a thirty-minute personal language interview designed to take the speaker to the point where their communication skills broke down. I definitely got there.

I am nervous about a lot of things (one of them being that we are told to expect not to get five consecutive minutes by ourselves for the next three months), but above all I am incredibly excited. When I think about everything I’m going to learn here, I can hardly contain myself. All of the current volunteers we have met rave about their service and say that the time has passed quickly, too quickly. For now, we have internet service, but I expect that to end on Saturday, when we head out to the towns where we’ll be living during training.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why I'm Going

In the weeks leading up to the start of my service with the Peace Corps, lots of people have asked me why it is I've chosen to do this. Usually, I say something about how it’s a great opportunity to have an adventure, how it will help me to get work in international development, or that it’s a good way to avoid looking for a job during this economic crisis.

All of these things are true. But there’s more to it than that. The more I think about it, the more I realize that my reasons for wanting to join the Peace Corps are spiritual. While listening to a Speaking of Faith podcast the other day, I was struck by something that Jon Kabat-Zinn (the author of several books on Mindfulness) said:

“In a sense I think all of us, each in our own unique way, are being called upon to find out who we are, and to live that, authentically, in the service of this world.”

I went back and listened to that line several times. This is it, I thought. This is why I want to go on this adventure. I want to find the fullest expression of who I am and to live it in the service of the world. I want to face head on some of the fundamental questions I have about life:

How can a person who has grown up with privilege find ways to give back?
What kind of work is worth doing?
How will I define myself while existing outside of my own culture?
What kind of comforts can I live without?
And what will giving up those comforts teach me about what is truly
important and meaningful?

As regards this last question, I’ve been thinking a lot about a phrase that the mother of one of my college friends used to always say:

“Live simply so that others may simply live.”

I believe in this concept, and it is partly an interest in finding out just how simply I am capable of living that I want to do the Peace Corps. It strikes me that here in the US, we are constantly encouraged not to live simply, not just by advertisers but also as a component of our civic duty. Perversely, we are told that we must live consumptively so that others may simply continue to have jobs and support themselves.

Throughout everything that has gone down with the economy over the past year, I have felt a sense of optimism. Maybe it is through this crisis that people will be inspired to live more simply, to reconnect with what really makes life worth living – our relationships with each other, the pleasures of food and family and nature. I am hopeful that the whole culture will start down a spiritual path of simplicity and service. But I’m not willing to wait around.