Monday, August 30, 2010

Talk at Ethical Society St. Louis

While visiting my family in June of this year I gave a talk at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. I spoke about my experience thus far in Nicaragua. The talk is now available online as a podcast from the St. Louis Ethical Society's website. If you'd like to listen, you can find it here:

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Yesterday I finally visited Dona Fernanda, the old lady who always stops in the street to talk to me. I usually see her when she is on her way to church, dressed in old-fashioned pastel colored dresses, usually with a scarf over her hair and a large cross around her neck. When she sees me she calls out to me, we embrace and air kiss, which is a bit awkward since she stands about four feet two inches tall. No matter how hot it is outside her cheek is always powdery and cool. She blesses me in the name of Jesucristo and tells me to come visit her at her home.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking home from a visit to one of the teachers in the school when I saw Fernanda sitting outside of her house. She was wearing a bandana and her hair hung down in two long, skinny braids. She was sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette. I walked over to her and sat down on a rock facing hers, and we had a lovely conversation, punctuated by Fernanda dragging on her cigarette and spitting into the dirt. “Soy grosera, no?” she asked me several times. I’m crude, aren’t I?

I asked her who lived here in this home with her, and she said she lived alone. But she isn’t afraid, she said. She proceeded to tell me that even during the war she wasn’t afraid, when she used to cross military lines in order to deliver babies. She never feared, she said, “porque para Jesucristo y una partera no hay fronteras.” For Jesus Christ and for midwives there are no borders.

Listening to her talk about her life was like reading a Gabriel García Márquez novel, all magical realism. She told me that she learned midwifery directly from God – no one here on earth taught her the trade. She learned how to sew in dreams, she said. “Son las cosas que Dios regala a una.” These are just things that God gives to you.

She has five children and nine grandchildren. Most of the grandchildren she delivered in her dirt-floor home. “They were born into my hands,” she said. I asked her if she was ever married, and she said no; her children were gifts sent directly from God.

Fernanda’s father taught her how to play guitar, and she used to write songs, she told me. But after he died she never touched the guitar again. I asked her if she could sing me one of the songs she had written, and she said no; she remembers the lyrics, but her voice doesn’t cooperate anymore. She could, however, recite for me a poem that had occurred to her as she saw me walking down the path to her house.

“Muchachita, que bonita
Me alivia mi corazón.
Espero que venga para una visita
Y le doy un apretón.”


Such a pretty girl
Makes my heart feel light.
I hope she comes for a visit
I’ll give her a big squeeze.

As I was leaving, she did just that, and I promised to visit again soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back in the Day

Before I was assigned to my site, I was prepared to handle almost anything. I was willing to live an hour’s trek from a bus route, I would have been fine in a village without electricity. I did request to be placed in a place with running water, but a well system would have probably have been just fine. While I was still in the US, the idea of using a latrine for two years freaked me out, but by the end of training I had decided it wouldn’t be too bad. My one wish was that I wouldn’t have to live in a dirt-floor home.

When I got to my site I was pleasantly surprised. For an Agriculture volunteer, I’ve got it kind of cushy – we have running water for at least two hours every day, so I don’t have to haul water from a well; my house is wired with electricity; and best of all, I live right on a road – newly paved – along which pass eight buses a day. I can’t receive calls right in my house, but it is possible for me to find pockets of cell coverage in my community.

I sometimes think about what it would have been like to have been placed in this site back in the old days of Peace Corps Nicaragua, i.e. the nineties. At that time, the community had not yet gotten electricity, nor was there a running water system. And the country did not as yet have any kind of cell network at all. The road was a rutted dirt track that became impassable during the rainy season.

The odd thing is that one year ago I was prepared to take it, whereas now I don’t think I could. Contrary to what I expected before I got here, as time goes on, I am less, not more willing to give up comforts of any kind. I am accustomed to using my computer almost every day and listening to my ipod whenever I’m in the house. I download podcasts whenever I go to Esteli, which thanks to the easy bus transportation, is about twice a week. When I talk to my host family, I realize that they feel the same way that I do about modern conveniences. My host mom lived the first 39 years of her life without electricity. Now, when it goes out for one day she’s bored without the television. And she can’t imagine going back to hauling buckets of water – sometimes six trips a day – up the steep hill to her house.

I think the point of this is that it is very difficult to go back, no matter if you have a lot or very little. For those of us, like Peace Corps Volunteers, who choose to give up (at least for a time) many of the comforts we are used to, it is possible to prepare for that moment and to make the transition willingly. But once you’ve settled in to a simpler life, it becomes just as hard to give up anything that you’ve come to depend on as it was the first time, maybe even more difficult.

Note: Ironically, just after I wrote this the charger for my laptop stopped working, so I am currently without the ability to download podcasts, write blog posts at home, or watch DVDs. Hopefully the situation will be resolved quickly.