Friday, May 28, 2010

When It Rains

The rains have arrived. Last week I came back from a trip to Managua, and it was like I came home to different place. Where the hills were brown and barren, they had turned a dazzling green. My yard went from being a patch of burnt-looking scrub to a full-blown jungle of weeds.

You’d think the farmers would be happy, overjoyed in fact. And they were at first. But then it kept raining. For the past five days straight we have not seen the sun. Sometimes it drizzles, other times the rain falls down in fat drops, and at night it rains hard. All of this rain is bad for the newly-planted corn and beans, now drowning in marshy fields. Where people plant near the river, the fields themselves have in some cases been submerged.

Last night my neighbor invited me to come with her to take a look at how much the river had grown. When we got there, I was positively shocked. If you have been following this blog, you will recall that the river in my community had dried up completely. As in dry as a bone. As in no agua. Where that dry trough was a month ago, there is now a rushing river, too deep and wide to cross. We joked a few months ago that just when the municipal government had finally put in a bridge, the river had disappeared. Now, people are worried that the bridge is going to fall down because a couple of big uprooted trees crashed into it full speed during the flood.

I’ve been tromping around in botas de ule (rubber boots), even to go to my neighbors’ houses or to the latrine. I feel lucky because so far, the trench around my house has prevented the water from coming in. Others have fared worse. In one part of my town, where the houses are right next to the river, there is some concern that the river may erode away so much land that the houses themselves will fall in.

In talking about this flood, people often bring up Hurricane Mitch, which caused the worst flooding anyone in the community can remember. At that time, numerous fields were destroyed, turned into giant rock piles that have never been recovered for planting. This flood has been mild in comparison. And hopefully with a few days of sun, most people’s crops will not be lost. But whether they are dealing with floods or droughts, price fluctuations or political instability, the people in my community live much closer to the edge than most US Americans that I know.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Year In

Last week I passed an important milestone in my service. On May 14, 2010 I completed a full year in Nicaragua. In that year, I left only one time, and that was to go to Guatemala. That means I have spent more than a full year outside of the US, something that at one time I listed as a lifetime goal to accomplish before turning 30. Just made it. The day of my one-year anniversary in Nicaragua I was participating in the orientation activities for the new group that just arrived, Nica 53. It was especially nice to be able to reflect on my year in country while welcoming the newest additions to the PC Nicaragua family.

The new trainees asked a million questions - Will the language training really make their Spanish better? Do I feel safe in my site? What is my housing situation like? Do I feel like I'm making a difference? Did training prepare me to do my job? Do I like it here?I felt very fortunate to have almost all positive things to say - yes, the language training is amazing. Yes, I feel very safe in my site. Yes, I have a great housing situation, close to a host family but in my own place.

As to whether or not I'm making a difference, I still think it's a bit early to tell. But one thing I am happy to realize is that regardless of what kind of tangible results I am able to point to at the end of my service, the cultural exchange element is enough to make me feel that being here is worthwhile. Many Peace Corps volunteers are the only US Americans that people in rural Nicaragua (and in many places where Peace Corps works) will ever really know. And although I am sometimes asked what could have possibly possessed me to give up the advantages of living in the US, even for a couple of years, most Nicaraguans that I meet and get to know are impressed that so many North Americans would willingly choose to spend two years living at the same standard as some of the poorest Central Americans. My friends here have become real friends. We cook together and eat together, we talk about our families, we even have inside jokes - ask me sometime to tell you about 'pelo de cusuco' (armadillo hair). I honestly believe that this kind of interpersonal cultural exchange makes the world a better and a safer place, maybe even more than an improved oven or a family garden.

Okay, one more point before I get too mushy. Have you ever stopped to think that American English lacks a real term for our own nationality? In Spanish, they have the word 'estadounidense', basically United States-ian. We call ourselves Americans, but that term could apply to anyone living on either of the two American continents. I make an effort when speaking English to say US American, but that sounds kind of weird. American from the US is too long, United States-ian is kind of strange. Gringo is okay, but it only works in Latin America, and it has negative connotations. Any other suggestions?

Monday, May 17, 2010


Whenever I come home after having spent time out of my site, my host family tells me I am being "vaga", which means something like "vagabond". This month I have been extra-vaga. Between my mid-service medical and dental exams (no cavities this year), a workshop on program design, and the fact that I'm participating in the new Ag group's training activities, I have not been in my site for a full week since mid-April.

I mention all of this in part to explain why I haven't been keeping up with this blog. But it's also an interesting reflection of Nicaraguan rural culture that people are not used to the kind of constant motion that North Americans are. There are many people in my town who have never traveled farther from home than the two major cities that are two hours in either direction from where we live. Many have never seen the ocean or any of Nicaragua's natural and cultural wonders. To me, it's mind-boggling to think that there are people who leave our tiny community of 700 people no more than a couple of times a year.

In two weeks I'll be heading back to the US for my first visit since I started this adventure. I wonder how it will feel to be back in what Thomas Friedman calls "the fast world" after having spent a full year here where things move at a much slower pace.