Adios Nicaragua 😔
Buenas – it has been a while! The past five months have been tumultuous, to say the least. Shortly after a nurturing family vacation to Jamaica my Peace Corps service was heart-wrenchingly cut short by revolutionary upheaval; my jarring evacuation from Nicaragua opened up space for an unexpected opportunity to travel throughout South East Asia, and just a week after returning back to the states i accepted a sudden job offer to help manage a yoga studio in Medellín, Colombia, where i will continue living for the next few months. To be fair to my Nicaraguan experiences without this blog turning into una novela i will focus this update primarily on my final days in Nicaragua and will send a follow-up update next month to close the gap and bring my updates up to date (pun intended).
A few days after sending the last update i left for Jamaica where i spent the last week of March connecting with my parents. At the time i believed it would be my only opportunity to travel outside of Nicaragua in 2018 and we definitely made the most it. Jamaica had long been on my bucket list, and as a centrally located destination between my parents and i it ended up being the perfect fit.
The trip surpassed all expectations. We rented a car and spent the week exploring the island. The landscapes were breathtaking, the waterfalls exhilarating and rejuvenating, and the people welcoming, calming, and refreshingly down to earth. Moreover, it was the easiest country i’ve visited for vegan travel; the fruit selection and quality are incomparable to anything i’ve experienced, and the centrality of ital food (generally vegan and salt/sugar-free) to Rastafarian culture ensured everyone knew what we were talking about and always had a number of recommendations for where the best ital food could be found!
While i was dragging a bit emotionally before the trip the time with my parents in Jamaica filled me back up and left me feeling excited and enthusiastic about my upcoming second year of service.
Below are a few photos from the trip; more shots can be seen in this Facebook album.
Final Days In Nicaragua
My trip to Jamaica coincided with Semana Santa, Holy Week, and i returned to Nicaragua in time for the first day back to class. In addition to the normal academic schedule of classes and coaching sessions with teachers my attention shifted towards business consulting with Cooperativa Manos Unidas. Months earlier i had met an expat in southern Nicaragua who had recently begun growing turmeric and was looking to expand and begin exporting to the United States. Intrigued by the idea and believing the crop could be the perfect fit for diversifying San Juan del Rio Coco’s coffee monoculture i stayed in contact with him and in time was able to invite him to a meeting with Cooperativa Manos Unidas. The meeting went well, and by the end we formed an agreement to begin cultivation of turmeric in San Juan del Rio Coco, the first time the crop would ever be grown in the region, with Cooperativa Manos Unidas as the central organization in charge of distributing and collecting turmeric in the region. Exciting! In early April 25,000lbs of turmeric arrived, and i helped la cooperativa with their contracts and distributing the starts to farmers throughout the region.
Turmeric starts arriving in the night.
Months later the turmeric has all been planted and is thriving!
Unfortunately, the excitement of this new venture was to be quickly obfuscated by political disintegration across Nicaragua. This blog is not the space for me to dig into the political intricacies that led to the uprising and upheaval; rather, i’ll focus on my own personal experiences.
On April 18th non-violent protests centered on university campuses broke out against the government’s mishandling of a massive wildfire and their announcement to overhaul the social security system. The protesters were met with brutal force from the government and a student was killed by the police; the next day new protests erupted across the country, this time protesting the police killing, and again the protestors were met with lethal state violence.
The following day, as protests continued to grow and spread throughout the country, all Peace Corps volunteers were placed on lockdown, told not to leave our sites, and to avoid leaving the house as much as possible. Moreover, due to the unrest and growing presence of roadblocks the HIV Taskforce decided to cancel our retreat the next week where i was scheduled to be teaching yoga and meditation in self-care workshops to HIV positive women from across the country. We had been building up to this retreat for months, and its sudden cancellation was disheartening and ominous.
Increasing violence in the ensuing days led to the Peace Corps deciding to consolidate all volunteers into a safe space in Granada until things cooled down. I received a phone call after dark on Sunday night, April 22, after having just finished cooking a big batch of meals meant to least me for the week, telling me to pack my things and that i needed to leave the community at daybreak the following morning. It was a surreal feeling, hanging up the phone and beginning to pack my most essential belongings. At the time i believed i was only going to be gone for a few days, but the tone of my supervisor on the phone alarmed me and left me fearing the worst. I was able to coordinate a ride to the closest city a few hours away and left as the sun began to rise – not how i had planned to spend my 24th birthday.
The next day, once all the volunteers from across the country had been consolidated together in Granada we were informed that we would all be evacuated to the United States; the decision to evacuate us was out of their hands – as soon as the U.S. embassy decided to evacuate, the Peace Corps was forced to follow suit. However, we were assured that the measure would only be temporary, likely for only a month, and that we would be back as soon as things calmed down. Due to roadblocks rebels/paramilitary groups had formed around the airport we were forced to bus into Costa Rica and fly out from there.
Nica 69, my cohort, gathered together for what would become one of our final days together.
Arriving back in the U.S. was jarring. It was devastating returning to such normalcy and comfort when the community members i have come to love and consider family suffered; hard that i was so easily able to flee to a plan B when the going got rough, when my community members only have plan A.
Moreover, i found my conversations with fellow USians about why i was back from Nicaragua frustrating in two ways.
1 – It is frustrating how little most USians know about Nicaragua historically, and how none of them had heard anything about the ongoing crisis from which i was forced to flee. To be clear, i don’t hold fellow USians culpable for this – i recognize it is a result of our media and educational systems. However, shifting the culpability failed to reduce the pain. While many people i spoke with would not have been able to place Nicaragua in the correct hemisphere, U.S. foreign policy has had an intimate impact on the lives of every Nicaraguan. One discussion sticks out poignantly: an afternoon i spent speaking with a middle-aged Nicaraguan man in the park, who despite his illiteracy was able to discuss in detail Reagan’s foreign policy regarding Nicaragua when explaining his statement, “Ronald Reagan killed my father and my brother.”
2 – More complexly, the sincere and well-intentioned comments about “poor” Nicaraguans also found their way under my skin. So often we are quick to paint the economic plight of Nicaraguans and the citizens of other majority world countries as something totally foreign, a fictional distance that i believe helps us overcome the internal dissonance that arises from comparing comfortable lives with human suffering. A type of othering where we lament the misfortune of people elsewhere, people for whom we feel no responsibility, or perhaps more fairly, feel powerless to help. (To be clear, it is something that i too am guilty of).
The reality is that despite Nicaragua economically being the world’s poorest Spanish-speaking state, brutal poverty continues to exist, and in fact grows, within the United States. In the U.S. today 41 million people live in poverty, 9 million have zero cash income, and 1.5 million live on less than $2 a day. All this while 3 U.S. citizens have more wealth than the bottom 50%, the bottom 150 million in our country. I think it is important to recognize the inequity within the U.S. even as we critique suffering abroad (and hopefully, when appropriate, connect foreign suffering to U.S. policy).
My frustrations were never (and are never) felt towards the people with whom i’ve spoken with, but rather at the state of our world and the systems that operate to ensure its inertia. However, this did little to alleviate the sense of isolation i felt even when surrounded in social settings.
All Peace Corps Nicaragua volunteers,awaiting the busses that would evacuate us across the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border.
Termination of Service
After a month back in the U.S. we received notice that our evacuation was going to be continued for another month, likely another two. Shocked, both by the fact that i wouldn’t be returning at the end of the month and by the reality that i suddenly had two months free up on the calendar, i scraped some savings together and hurriedly planned a trip to South East Asia believing it would be my final opportunity until after graduating law school in 2022 to travel abroad. I planned the trip fully believing i would be headed right back to Nicaragua afterward; however, i received word from the Peace Corps while in Vietnam that the program was closing,
Reading the news was devastating, heartbreaking. Looking back i realize i had been in denial of what was happening since it all began. I had maintained my unyielding optimism, and upon receiving the news that i would not be able to return to service the reality of the situation came crashing down. It was hard to process, surrounded by strangers and traveling through a new city every few days.
One of the hardest aspects has been the lack of goodbyes. Being forced to evacuate so suddenly i was only able to say goodbye to my host family; and even with them i was not saying goodbye goodbye, but instead promising i would be back in a few days. While i have been able to communicate with other community members digitally it is simply not the same as in person. Moreover, there are dozens of people with whom i cannot connect with via the internet who i was never able to bid farewell and thank for everything they have given me. I find it difficult to swallow when thinking about the abandonment they must feel by my sudden disappearance sans communication. Moreover, certain we would be returning within the month i didn’t give sincere goodbyes to any of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, people who had become some of my best friends throughout our fifteen months of service together.
Faces of San Juan del Rio Coco
Shortly before being evacuated i decided to create a Faces of San Juan del Rio Coco post, highlighting community members with whom i interacted with daily, people whose kindness and genuine selflessness changed who i am today. Unfortunately i don’t have the photos of everyone i would like to share, even from some of the most influential faces from my life in San Juan del Rio Coco. But hopefully the faces i do have will give you a taste of my past 15 months, the friendships i formed, and the lives that so intimately touched mine.
Carlos – My closest friend. Every weekend, as often as possible, we would go on long walks down mountain roads snaking between coffee plantations. I always particularly looked forward to our political conversations and the relevance of historical events on the lives of people today.
Erlin – One of my host brothers, the one with whom I shared a front yard, latrine, and water tap. Him, his wife Dina, and their son Dierling were the first people i greeted everyday, and the last i said goodbye to each night.
Manuel – My other host brother, the one from whom i rented my room (pictured in the backdrop). Manuel is incredibly hard-working and driven, and is always working towards a new project with the potential to improve the lives of his family.
Josefa – One of the professors i coached and co-taught with. She has a wonderful way with the students, and helped me to build trust with the student body.
Norwin – Another of the professors i coached and co-taught with. As an effective and articulate teacher we were able to focus on bringing creativity into our lesson plans.
Oved – my veggie connect! I bought the majority of my vegetables from him, and enjoyed discussing (elementary) agricultural economics in the region with him.
Marciel (right), Elmer (left) – Two of my favorite guys that i could ALWAYS count on finding in the same place. I made a point to visit them daily and share a joke or two.
Filamon – I bought my beans from Filamon. Early on he mentioned his disappointment at my failure to greet him one morning as i passed by, and i was sure to never forget greeting him (or anyone else in the community) again.
Gledys – One of my favorite girls in the community. Gledys was everywhere, from delivering fresh made tortillas in the early morning to popping up at birthday parties on the other side of town.
David – The community cobbler. He repaired one of my shoes, and was a part of my daily greetings as i walked through the streets of San Juan on my way to the park.
Juan – Juan sold fruit and vegetables from a cart on the street my first year in San Juan, and was my favorite person to buy mango and melon from. The community market opened at the beginning of April and Juan moved to this new space the week before i was evacuated – exciting to see his economic development!
Dilcia – On hot days i liked to visit Dilcia and talk with her about her day as i enjoyed a slice or two of watermelon on the street.