Monday, August 1, 2011

What I Learned

Finishing the first two years of my service with Peace Corps has given me cause to reflect. I came into this experience with certain questions, which I suppose I am now in a position to answer. In one of my first blog posts (May 5, 2009) about Peace Corps, entitled “Why I’m Going”, I wrote the following:

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?

Here are my thoughts after two years in the field.

1. How can a person who has grown up with privilege find ways to give back?

It’s harder than it seems. PC is the second program I’ve done that involved stepping outside of my own economic class (and race and ethnicity) to give back to the larger world. (The other was as an urban bilingual school teacher with the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows.) In both programs I have felt frustrated with how difficult it is for a well-intentioned person to have a meaningful impact.

Now I think the best, in fact the only way to truly make a difference – whether you come from privilege or not – is to be a full member of a community, for the long haul. The people who can have the most impact are those who are where they are to stay. So it makes sense to find something you can commit to – a school, a town, an organization – and stick with it for longer than a few years.

This is not to say that I didn't have an impact at all during my time in my site, only that my impact was necessarily limited by the short-term nature of my stay there.

2. What kind of work is worth doing?

I have had plenty of time to think about this question during my service, especially as it relates to my own career choices. I have come to the conclusion that it might not be so bad to work in an office, doing something administrative or organizational. I used to only want to work in the field, directly with needy populations; now I wouldn’t mind being a bit higher up the totem pole, where I have the opportunity to influence what gets done and how it is done. I realized that my particular strengths - in analysis, writing, organization, strategy, teaching and training - can perhaps be put to better use in an office environment.

Living in a rural community also made me wonder more broadly about whether traditional agriculture – once the holiest of holies for me – is worth preserving, given the insecurity inherent in it. I’ve wondered whether it would be such a bad thing for the peasant farmers in Nicaragua to move through the same stages of development that American farmers went through, resulting in less farmers with more land making more money in an overall less risky system. A system in which more people move off-farm, and farmers become more like business people. For me, this is a really big question, since it gets to the heart of what the goals of development should be. I’m still not sure where I stand. On the one hand, it is amazing and beautiful that some people still live in pre-industrial societies, entirely dependent on natural cycles and seasons. On the other hand, it is heartbreaking when crops failures mean that whole villages go without. I have certainly learned what a blessing it is to be able to earn a steady pay check and not have to rely on the vagaries of weather and commodity prices for my food and livelihood security.

Certainly, two years as a development worker in the field strengthened my resolve to continue in this field. A friend of mine who is exceedingly smart and who works as a public school teacher told me that the reason she enjoys teaching is that the big questions in urban education continue to fascinate her. I feel the same way about the big questions in development.

3. How will I define myself while existing outside of my own culture?

I have found that as a foreigner – especially a blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigner from the most powerful country in the hemisphere – that other people are all too anxious to define me, and I have developed a lot of patience dealing with people’s misconceptions about Americans. I have also found that how I define myself is not nearly as important as how I interact with people – humility, sensitivity, sincerity, and showing interest in other people’s lives transcend cultural lines.

4. What kind of comforts can I live without?

I can live without a lot of things. I lived for the past two years without running water, air conditioning, a car, screened windows, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a couch, a real mattress, cell phone service, consistent internet access, etc, etc, etc. Whether I want to live without them long term is another question. If anything, I have learned how very difficult it is to give up the comforts of modern life and how unlikely it is that most people with access would willingly forgo such conveniences. Which is kind of a scary conclusion, really. I went into this experience excited to live as simply as possible. I ended up feeling worn down by the small, daily sacrifices of living like many people in the rural developing world and anxious to get back into the cultural loop. I am still pondering what this will mean for my personal consumption choices and what it implies for our common environmental future. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)

5. And what will giving up those comforts teach me about what is truly important and meaningful?

I discovered that any hardship is more easily borne with a sense that “we’re all in this together”, whether it comes from being part of a family, a community, a group of friends, or even – as in the case of fellow PCVs – from like-minded people with a common mission.

I saw the importance of being part of something larger than oneself, and I was inspired by the solidarity my community showed during flooding in 2009’s rainy season.

I learned that a good sense of humor is the most powerful tool for confronting frustration, loneliness, and disappointment. Like when your leather shoes grow an inch of green mold or when ants lay eggs in your underwear.

So, with this post I am closing one chapter of my Peace Corps experience – living and working in the field – and opening a new one – living and working in the capital city.

More on life in Managua to follow.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Adjusting to City Life

I have been in the big city – aka, Managua – for one week now, and the transition has been rough. Upon my arrival, I instantly developed what is either a head cold or allergies. I’m not sleeping well, since my campo sleeping schedule clashes with urban life completely. And, on one of my last days in site I twisted my ankle coming down the hill from my latrine. So I am not in great shape. Still, I am really happy to be here.

I loved my community, but if I have learned anything about myself over these two years, it’s that I am a city person, through and through. I love visiting the countryside, but I am not cut out to live in it long term. I am so excited about all the opportunities the city presents – restaurants, dance classes, cultural events, and of course, new people to meet.

Still, getting used to city life again is a big adjustment. I have become accustomed to having a particular structure to my day, and adapting to a new schedule is jarring. In fact, I am a bit nervous about trying to adjust to working for 8 hours out of every day, at a desk! In front of a computer! In air conditioning! Will I be able to do it? So far, I have come home exhausted after every day, even though I am generally less active than I was in site. Maybe it’s the head cold or the insomnia, but I think it’s also the adjustment to a different work environment.

There’s also the over-stimulation of the city, which, come to think of it, may be contributing to my insomnia. In the campo, there was nothing to do after 8 pm. Ok, maybe not nothing. I could have watched telenovelas with my host family until 9:30. But after that, literally nothing. I don’t have many friends in Managua yet, but still it seems like there is too much to juggle. Do I want to have a drink with my friend from the European Commission? Or go with my roommate to see a concert at the Teatro Nacional? I am not used to having a social calendar at all, much less one that requires choosing one activity over another.

In July, I will be taking a month of Special Leave in the US – standard policy for PCVs extending service for a third year. Hopefully I will come back from my month in La Yunai having re-adjusted, at least somewhat, to a more urban way of being.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peace Corps Reform

I encourage all PCVs and RPCVs to look at this article by Gal Beckerman in the Boston Globe.

'The Peace Corps: What is it for?'

The article makes reference to a 20-point reform plan proposed by a couple of RPCVs who both served multiple stints with Peace Corps. The plan is obviously well-researched and crafted with loving hands, but the authors do not shy away from addressing structural problems with the Peace Corps that need to be addressed if the agency is to continue to be relevant 50 years on. Please read it and pass it along.

Here is a link to the plan on the Peace Corps wiki.

Ludlam and Hirschoff's Peace Corps Reform Plan

Friday, May 27, 2011

Apartment Hunting

If all goes according to plan, I will be spending a third year in Nicaragua. My close of service date is set for July 29th, 2011, but I have asked for an extension of service until August of 2012. In my third year I will be splitting time between the Peace Corps office in Managua and the Nicaragua office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. In order to do this work, I will need to move to Managua. So I spent my last visit to the capital searching for housing.

Amazingly, two days of apartment hunting left me even more deeply infatuated with this country. At first I hadn’t a clue how to go about looking for a place to live. There is a Craigslist here, but it isn’t much used except for vacation rentals. So I started asking around.

First I talked to a friend from Esteli, who referred me to a woman she knows who rents rooms in Managua. I called her, and she told me that she didn’t have any rooms available, but she would happily escort me on visits to a few places that she was aware of. So I spent the afternoon driving around with this very sweet Esteliana, looking at rooms in people’s houses and apartments for rent in a neighborhood near the Peace Corps office. As we cruised through the neighborhood she asked people on the street if they knew anyone who was renting rooms nearby, and I started making a list of things that would never happen in the US while apartment hunting.

1. A person you have never met before offers to be your chauffeur as you look at different housing options.
2. You ask people on the street if their neighbors are renting rooms in their houses, and they tell you ‘Yes.’

The following day I had an appointment in our medical office. While I was there, I thought, I might as well ask this doctor if she knows anyone who rents rooms, since this seems to be the way it’s done. She referred me to a friend of hers who lives right down the street from the Peace Corps office. I went there, and the woman there showed me a very nice room with a private entrance, bathroom and kitchen. She told me that she could help me negotiate a good price for my laundry with the family’s maid. I added to my list.

3. Laundry service is offered as part of your rent.

The last place I visited was a beautiful, sprawling ranch outside of the city. I found it by asking the owner of a guesthouse I had once stayed in if she or anyone she knew rented rooms in Managua. It turned out that her brother and his wife had a big house with rooms available. Their children were all grown, and they were hoping to rent one or more rooms. I took a taxi to their house, where I added more items to my list of things that never happen in the US while looking for an apartment:

4. The taxi driver waits for you to look at a place without charging for the wait time.
5. Your landlords offer to be like a second family to you, should you choose to rent from them.
6. On the way back from the apartment showing, while stuck in rush hour traffic, you buy cashews from a street vendor out the window of the taxi.

I haven’t decided where I’m going to live yet, but the process of looking for a place has been unexpectedly enjoyable.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Computer Lab Inauguration

The last few weeks have been the busiest of my service so far. Since the computers were delivered in late February, the directiva committee members and I have been hard at work preparing for the lab’s inauguration and a fundraiser party. There were visits to the mayor’s office and the education ministry, to the hardware store, the grocery store and to Nicaragua’s technical institute.

But now I can breathe a sigh of relief. Our inauguration event went off without a hitch, notwithstanding a very inconvenient power outage on the day of the ceremony. (A loaned diesel generator took care of that problem.) The director of Peace Corps Nicaragua was in attendance at the inauguration and even came back the following evening to bust a move at the dance party. Thanks to the generosity of the owners of our town’s dance hall, El Rancho Silvestre (i.e., The Wild Ranch), the party was also a great success.

Perhaps the best news of the past few weeks is that Nicaragua’s technical institute, INATEC, is going to help us out with technical support and by certifying us as an official satellite institution. That means that we will be able to give computer courses that will include a certificate from INATEC, as though our students had taken the course through INATEC itself.

There is still a lot of work to do, and a few things we need to spend money on in order to have the computer lab fully functional – fans, curtains (for dust), CD reader/burners, paint (for a world map), plastic chairs, etc. - but this coming week we will be able to start giving classes as planned.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What Sexy Today Beauties

Ladies, if you have low self esteem, come to Nicaragua. Here, you will not be able to walk a single city block without receiving recognition of your physical beauty, desirability, and overall hotness. My good friend Ashley has been visiting me this week, and we have been keeping track of the cat calls, or piropos, that come our way.

Over the course of this week, Ashley and I have gotten a lot of the standards- "Que guapa." (How hot) "Que rica." (How delicious) "Mi amor." (My love) - though some men prefer to speak to us in our native tongue - e.g. "Bye, baby!", "Pretty ladies!"

Sometimes one word is all it takes, as in the case of the man who called out from across the street - "Wow!"

By far the best catcalls are those that rely on the caller´s skills in English and innate creativity. The best call of the week: "What sexy today, beauties!" I think that one even rivals my favorite catcall I´ve ever received - "Wow! Wow! Wonderful lady!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meet me at the school wash

This week my community will be receiving a delivery of 10 computers, 10 desks, a printer, and a projector. All the materials necessary to create the first school computer lab in the whole municipality of La Concordia.

It's pretty exciting. In preparation, yesterday we cleaned out the school building that is going to house the computer lab, which was also quite exciting.

First of all, one of the things I love about my little town is that the kids love the help. I can't imagine a group of six neighborhood kids in the US voluntarily coming to help clean a school on a Sunday afternoon, but that was exactly what happened. Once we started cleaning things got crazy. The Nica cleaning method involves lots and lots and lots of water. No surface is spared a thorough dousing. We brought a hose from the neighbor's house and completely soaked the entire place, walls and all. My job was to yell "Cuidado!" every time someone got the hose near one of the newly installed electric outlets. The whole thing was more like a car wash than anything else I've ever experienced. By the end of it, the kids who came to help were all completely drenched and were making soap angels on the floor of the school building.

Monday, February 14, 2011

GDT Revisited

It looks like I’ve already failed at my New Year’s resolution to write more on my blog. At least I have a good excuse – the second year in Peace Corps really is busier. I have been attending events almost continuously since the start of this month, while simultaneously trying to get a computer lab up and running at my school.

One of the events was a youth leadership camp for which I was part of the organizing committee. The event was held at a beautiful facility in the mountains of Jinotega. We spend the weekend climbing high ropes courses, teaching leadership skills, and introducing Nicaraguan kids to American camp staples like ‘smores. The last night of youth camp we held an impromptu dance party using music from a volunteer’s ipod. The kids had been begging for a dance party, but once the music was on none of them got up to dance. The Peace Corps volunteers showed no such restraint. As soon as we heard the first notes of Shakira’s new hit “Loca” we were out on the floor dancing away. I think some of the kids might have danced had we volunteers not been so overly enthusiastic; they were either too scared or too embarrassed to join us.

Back when I was in training I wrote about Gringo Dance Theater; it seemed that we trainees became the entertainment at any and all Nica gatherings. People were either interested in our style of dancing or downright amazed that we could dance at all. This dance party brought back vividly those early days in Nicaragua. Only by this time I not only love dancing to these songs, I know all the words too. At one point I turned to a volunteer friend and said, “You know, it must be weird for these kids that this group of gringos knows all their songs and gets so pumped up to dance to them. It would be like if a group of Chinese people came to our high school and started going crazy singing and dancing to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.”
“Yeah,” my friend agreed, It wouldn’t just be weird. It would be the weirdest thing that ever happened. No wonder they aren’t dancing. They’re in shock.” Such is the transfixing power of Gringo Dance Theater.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Women in Education

This year Peace Corps Nicaragua is running a 3-day youth retreat to foster leadership skills in 100 young people from around the country. The other day I was in the home of an 18-year-old girl from my community who I am hoping will be able to attend the event. While making the invitation, I got to talking with her and her mother about the other children in the family. There are three girls, of whom the 18-year-old is the youngest, and two boys. The girls have all either finished or are attending college. One studied in the US and now runs an English-language institute. In contrast, neither of the two boys finished sixth grade. They are currently working construction in Costa Rica, and over the years they have alternated between working abroad and farming at home.

I have seen this type of situation in other families, too. In my host family it is only my host sister who has gone to college. Of her two brothers, only one finished high school. They have both worked in Costa Rica and have talked about going to the US. The one who finished high school was recently enrolled in a veterinary program, but he decided it was too much work for too little payoff, and he will be going back to Costa Rica as soon as he has the money to travel.

When I’ve talked to other volunteers, they have made the same observation: in contrast to what you read in the development literature, here it is the girls who stay in school, not the boys. Anyone who teaches in a rural Nicaraguan high school cannot help but notice that the majority of the students are girls. Some time after sixth grade the boys start dropping out to work in the fields with their dads. Yes, there are girls who get pregnant and stop coming to class, but many of them come back once they’ve had their babies; some even manage to go on to college, while their families help take care of their children. Once they’ve left, though, the boys rarely come back to school.

This situation is surprising to me, since everything I read before coming to Nicaragua suggested that when resources are scarce it is the boys who receive an education. I wonder, what is going on here? Machismo is alive and thriving in Nicaragua, so I don’t believe that this educational imbalance has to do with valuing girl children more than boy children. Instead, I think the cause is that even with a college education a woman still has less earning potential than a man. Furthermore, the boys are needed out in the fields to help with the family’s primary income-generating activity.

A college degree is no guarantee, either. I have seen my host sister struggle to find employment and work a low-paying job (albeit in her field) for a manager who takes advantage of her. Another young woman in town has a degree in computer engineering and can’t find work. Working in agriculture as day laborers or on their families’ plots men can still earn more than college-educated women, and the work they do is more vital to the family’s overall security, given that in addition to earning money, they produce food. Also, men are more empowered to go to Costa Rica or the US (though women do it too) to look for low-wage work abroad that pays more than any jobs pays domestically.

Maybe a better question than why it is that women tend to receive more formal education than men is what the outcome of this situation will be in the long term. There, I am completely stumped. Will it turn out that the tables will turn and women will become emancipated, more able to earn good salaries than men? Will the boys get left behind? Or will the current situation persist, with education failing to be linked to higher earning potential (at least for men) and education remaining mostly the province of women?

I should mention that these observations probably do not hold for city families. Still, I think there is something going on here in the rural areas. I also find it ironic to note that in the US it is now the case that more women than men earn advanced degrees. Although the farming economy and the pull of higher wages abroad cannot be the explanatory factors there, I wonder if there might be some other underlying factor common to both Nicaragua and the US that is causing women to seek more education than men. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Keeping An Open Mind

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s excellent book about the run-up to the housing and financial market crash of 2008, The Big Short. This topic is about as far removed from the reality of my community as anything could possibly be. Here, there is no such thing as housing speculation, and I doubt if the majority of the residents have even heard of the stock market. And yet, I found in the book’s epigraph a lesson that applies perfectly to my service. Lewis starts with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted [woman] if [she] has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent [woman] if [she] is firmly persuaded that [she] knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before [her]. (Pronoun changes are mine.)

Certainly, when trying to understand something as complicated as the housing derivatives market it is helpful to have a supple mind, but it is just as important to maintain this mental attitude in any endeavor in which one becomes complacent. I have only six months (!) left in my service, which means that I have been here for a year and a half and have completed three quarters of my term here. Recently, I have noticed a tendency in myself to think that I’ve been here long enough to understand how things work in this community. So when one of my bosses sent out an email saying that all of us in the ag sector needed to find three young people ages 15 to 25 to work on a garden with a drip irrigation system, my first thought was, “That will never work here.” The reason being that all the youth I know are either working in their families’ irrigated vegetable plots or are planning to work as day laborers cutting tomatoes, tobacco, or coffee. In other communities, where there is not so much activity during the dry season - here we are lucky to have a river, an abundance of land near the river, and many people who own diesel pump systems – this project would be a great way to provide an income-generating activity for local youth. But in my community, I thought, there are no youth available for this type of thing. When I asked some of the young people who live near me, they confirmed my preconceived notion.

But then, I thought, maybe I should approach this opportunity as I would if I hadn’t already been here for as long as I have, as if I didn’t think I had this community all figured out. So I went to the northern part of town, where the people tend to be a bit poorer, and I asked a teacher I have worked with if she knew any young people who might be interested in working with me on a gardening project for the dry season. She thought for a moment, and then she suggested a 19-year-old who is neither working nor attending school. I approached him, even though I’ve never worked with him before, and within a half hour he had assembled a group and found a place for us to put the garden. Obviously, I still have plenty to learn about this community. My goal for the next six months is to remember that.

I want my mind to be as open as this girl's