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.