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.