Sept ’17 Update
Hello Friends and Family!
Wow – where does the time go? Last weekend marked my 200th day in Nicaragua. Since my last update I have started and completed my first three months of service in Nicaragua (my last update came at the end of my Pre-Service Training before I had actually began service as a Peace Corps Volunteer). And like Pre-Service training, my experience in site continues to be quite the roller coaster ride. While things are finally starting to settle down a bit, the first month in site was particularly challenging, with my mood falling from ecstasy to melancholy before jumping back to gratitude daily, hourly even. However, despite the ups and downs I am inexorably trending upwards, and continue to be so grateful for the opportunity to be serving for Peace Corps Nicaragua; I resolutely feel I am in the right place at the right time – that is a good sentiment to have.
Given the substantial distance between my quarterly updates and how much has happened in these first few months, this update is unfortunatley quite long. I did my best to walk the line between providing all the details I thought you might be interested in while doing my best to limit its overall length. That being said, please do not feel any pressure to read the update in its entirety.
((Pro-Tip: Hover your mouse over photos to see their caption!))
San Juaneños participating in the city’s annual ‘birthday’ parade
My New Home – San Juan del Rio Coco
My home for the past three months and next two years is San Juan del Rio Coco, a relatively small town tucked into the mountainous cloud forests of Madriz, a northern department (Nicaragua’s version of states) of Nicaragua. When first told of my site assignment during Pre-Service Training I was admittedly quite disappointed. I had indicated my interest in serving in a larger city or regional center for a variety of reasons, most prominently my interest in having access to a variety and vegetable and fruit options, access to ‘speciality’ packaged goods like brown rice, having the opportunity to volunteer and work for a NGO, and my interest in finding group of progressive Nicaraguans with whom I share common values to befriend.
Unfortunately (at least through my initial perception), in many ways my site assignment is the exact opposite. I live in a relatively small town home to around 7,500 people. The city has two main paved roads, each a one way running east or west through the valley; moreover, in addition to the town’s small size I live in one of the most isolated sites within Peace Corps Nicaragua, living 7 hours by bus from Peace Corps headquarters in Managua. Due to San Juan del Rio Coco’s size and isolation, I have access to a limited diversity and quality of vegetables and fruits and live a 7-8 hour round trip from the nearest city that sells brown rice (as well as the nearest bank). Moreover no NGOs are active in the town and politically/ideologically the community is quite conservative.
However, in reality San Juan del Rio Coco has been everything I didn’t know I wanted (or at least that is how I quickly came to perceive it – the mind is a powerful thing!). My access to vegetables and fruits has been just fine; I did not chose to serve in the Peace Corps to eat gourmet, and have more than enough to provide a healthy diet – moreover, the fruits and vegetables I have access to are much more representative of how a majority of Earth’s human citizens live, and I have found immense fulfillment in living closer to this standard. My interest in working with an NGO has fallen away; the truth is that I am already working for an NGO of sorts, and feel that the work I am doing directly in the community is of more value than work I would otherwise be doing through the intermediary of an outside NGO. And while I have not found a progressive group of Nicaraguans with whom I share close personal values, I have most certainly found friends; it is the people who are not like us who make us grow, and I feel my friendships with people I would perhaps not be close friends with in the United States are teaching me so much about myself and about the world.
Most importantly I have been amazed by how much San Juan del Rio Coco has genuinely welcomed me into their warm embrace. While I have always been amazed by friendliness and hospitality of Nicaraguans, I have been particularly moved by how accommodating and generous this community has been. From the get go I have been treated as a community member, not a tourist. And due to the small size I am quickly beginning to know everyone on the street if not by name most certainly by face, and given my unique appearance it feels like most everyone has already come to know me.
Furthermore, the climate here is great. Being tucked away in Nicaragua’s verdant northern mountains, the temperature here is much cooler than the majority of Nicaragua; many mornings I even wake being able to see my breath. However, living in a cloud forest, despite its incredible beauty, has also come with heavy daily rainfall, a challenge at first but a characteristic I have since grown accustomed to. However, to my dismay, despite the name of San Juan del Rio Coco (St. John of the Coconut River) there is no river and nearly no coconuts (there is, however, a statue of St. John – we have the basics covered!).
The economy of San Juan del Rio Coco is coffee, plain and simple. If an individual’s income is not made directly from the harvest of coffee it is more than likely derived from the spending of those whose income did. As such the majority of neighboring mountainsides are covered in coffee plantations. (As an interesting fact, Starbucks actually sources coffee from this community – and while their logo can be seen in various locations throughout the community, I’m certain the vast majority of residents have never heard of the corporation.) One of my favorite activities in site has been hiking through these plantations with Norwin on the weekends, a high school and university teacher with whom I work.
Planting Roots – Lifestyle Overview
My first month in site was largely dedicated to getting settled in, settled into the community and settled into a new routine. I spent the majority of my time building relationships within my community, spending hundreds of hours talking with vegetable vendors on the street, youth outside the classroom, stay at home mothers in their homes, farmworkers in the fields, community leaders in their offices, drunks/drug abusers outside of bars, construction workers at their sites, etc. I also spent a good amount of time exploring options available to me (vegetables, fruits, and other products) and developing a new routine. Being only one of two English speakers I am aware of in site (and spending very limited time talking with the other) I have been able to thoroughly practice my Spanish speaking and listening abilities and feel I have progressed tremendously, so much so that people I meet for the first time now assume I am from Spain rather than the United States as it always was starting out in site; however, to be clear my Spanish abilities remain far from proficient – while I can engage in basic conversations well enough to fool strangers of my heritage, any conversational foray into more nuanced or complex topics immediately belie my shortcomings.
For whatever reason, community members constantly call out my name as I pass on the street, rarely expecting anything more than a nod in return, but seemingly just wanting to acknowledge my presence. The practice reminds me of the the birds from Finding Nemo’s constant repetition of “mine” whenever they see a fish. As I have become a more and more familiar face in town, I have been immensely pleased by how my naming has evolved. For my first few weeks I was named Gringo, a name that makes me cower into myself in shame. Gringo is a term used to refer to those from the United States; the name began as “Green Go,” and has its roots in US imperialism throughout Central America and their people’s desire to be liberated from the oppression of US Marines. The effects of this centuries old imperialism and military occupation can be seen embedded throughout the Nicaraguan culture; for example, Nicaragua’s national sport is baseball, a pastime introduced by US Marines in the early twentieth century. While I imagine the majority of those calling me Gringo are not aware of the historical roots of the name, being constantly named Gringo on the streets served as a constant reminder to historical injustices and filled me with guilt. In time I was pleased to find this naming evolve into “Chele,” a descriptor used to refer to those with white skin. It is used for Nicaraguan’s with less melanin just the same as Europeans or US citizens with similarly low levels of melanin, and this change in name went a long ways in making me feel more welcomed and accepted within the community. Today the naming has evolved into “Nico,” and has served to give me tremendous confidence and a sense of belonging and purpose within the community. While this constant naming as I walk through the streets or sit in the park has at times been a bit exhausting and frustrating, I have come to find the practice affirming and sweet.
Since moving to site I have been living humbly, but comfortable. The biggest change in lifestyle has largely been a lack of diversity and options, though never a lack of necessities. My monthly salary is roughly $210, and with that I cover all living expenses: food, housing, transportation, personal items, etc. The salary is meant to be commensurate with my teacher counterparts (more on them in the next section) – however, while I need only provide for myself, my Nicaraguan counterparts must often allocate the same amount in support of their family.
A central challenge for all community members is access to water and electricity. Water flows through the pipes every other day for a few hours in the morning; however, while some days there is a sufficient supply of water to fill the water tanks of community members, other days we are left with sputtering taps condemning us to another two days of no water with only the hope that it will return anew in 48 hours. And while this water is relatively pure at the source, rain water constantly contaminates the store with the pesticides that are plastered across the surrounding mountainsides of coffee as well as animal waste generated by cattle grazing. The rainwater’s capacity and proclivity to sully the water’s purity is displayed whenever it rains the night before water comes, as the water that does come is always stained and obscured with mud. The other main infrastructural weakness of San Juan del Rio Coco is its access (or lack thereof) to electricity. When there is electricity, it comes at a high price with one of the steepest electricity rates charged within Nicaragua. However, electrical outages are common daily occurrences, sometimes lasting only a few minutes and other times lasting hours or even days. While the short outages are routine, extended outages generally follow heavy rain storms whose occurrence, unfortunately for access to electricity, are quite common.
Being able to cook for myself has been liberating. While the food of my host family during Pre-Service Training was as good as I could have hoped for, being able to cook what I want (vegetables, beans, brown rice, fruit, etc.), how I want (free of oil, salt, and sugar), when I want has been tremendously satisfying. While I had advocated for the sustainability benefits of eating fruits and vegetables produced locally and seasonally while in the United States, I have finally started to walk the walk and have come to eat close to 100% local and seasonal, as no alternative exists. For example, I arrived at site during mango season and ate a ton of mangos, but have not seen them in site in six weeks – mango season came and left. The same is true for a variety of other fruits and vegetables – fruits and vegetables are available when nature says they are. However, while local and seasonal, organic options unfortunately (for the health of community members and the natural world) do not exist. Moreover, I have been amazed by the constant exposure of chemicals to community members in every aspect of their lives – there is simply no education around the health or environmental impacts of these products, and I find their omnipresence impossible to avoid.
Perhaps the most exciting development of the past three months has been my recent move into a new home. My first homestay was quite toxic. Beyond minor material problems (waking up to rats climbing up the inside of my mosquito net, stressed access to the stove and fridge, lack of personal space, etc.), the core issue was how I was treated by the women of the house – without digging into details, suffice it to say I felt quite unwelcome, the best of days only tolerated. I have since moved into a new space surrounded by an incredibly open, welcoming, and loving family. Beyond the material improvements (a large room free of other animals, outside bucket shower situated beneath an orange tree, etc.), feeling welcomed and having a sense of belonging has made all the difference. From being invited to children’s birthday parties to my host brother climbing backyard trees to pick me fresh fruit, having a sense of family has been immensely rewarding!
Work – Entrepreneurial Education
My official title within Peace Corps Nicaragua is an Entrepreneurial Education Volunteer. While not my original passion or interest (I was originally hired as an Environmental Education Volunteer but later reassigned to this new position following the miscommunications last year about my ‘broken’ arm), I have been making (and am committed to make) the most of it. My responsibilities can be divided into three general categories: schools, business advising, and secondary projects.
My principal focus thus far (and likely throughout my service) has been within schools. I work with four Nicaraguan teacher counterparts, and my role is to coach and empower them in sessions outside of the classroom to understand and effectively teach their/our eleventh grade entrepreneurship classes. I also co-teach in the classroom alongside them, in time ideally playing less and less of a teacher role and more and more of an observational and supporting role. Geared towards affecting long lasting sustainable change, my role is meant to empower my Nicaraguan teacher counterparts to continue effectively teaching generations of students long after I finish my service – it is a developmental model referred to as capacity building, and is structured with the goal of ensuring that the benefits of my service do not end when my time in Nicaragua does.
I coach and co-teach four classes at the main high school in San Juan del Rio Coco with two teachers, and coach and co-teach two classes with two other teachers in rural outlaying communities. My only option for visiting Quibuto, the most rural site in which I work, is to take an early morning 45 minute ride deep hunkered in the back of a large truck deep into the mountains; arriving as the sun creeps over the mountains elucidating the clouds clinging to their green mantles. Quibuto is stunning, the most beautiful landscape I have seen in Nicaragua and one of the most beautiful I have seen in the world. While Quibuto lacks even a formal store, its richness can be found everywhere the eye looks, whether it be in the muddy roads covered in freshly fallen mangos, the groves of bananas bursting with ripe fruit, or the gleaming eyes of students eager to learn and help empower their families and community.
I have found my work with my teacher counterparts and within the classrooms to be immensely rewarding. Watching the teachers educate their students on topics I had the privilege of teaching them days before fills my heart with joy. Moreover, I have really enjoyed forming relationships with the students and the opportunity to introduce topics of social justice such as gender equality into the classroom and minds of the students. However, this work has also been filled with its own challenges; perhaps most difficult has been the inconsistent class schedules – classes are constantly canceled for a laundry list of reasons, and when we do have classes they often start late and are filled with interruptions. However, despite any and all challenges I have found my work in the school system to be immensely rewarding and am grateful for the opportunity to continue serving the community in this capacity for the 21 months to come.
The second main focus of my service can generically described as business advising. A main aspect of this consists of advising and providing consulting for existing small businesses and cooperatives in the community. I have already begun advising an agricultural product and services company and am excited to begin by helping them organize and utilize their book keeping. I have also begun conversations with a few other local businesses and am interested in expanding my advising work more broadly in the community. I will also be working with start ups, helping aspirational entrepreneurs put their dreams into action and start their own business in the community. I am just now starting work with a agricultural cooperative called “Manos Unidas” (united hands) to help them get their business plan organized and cooperative underway. The final aspect of this theme of my work will consist of financial education and literary workshops, with the goal of empowering citizens in the community to better understand their financial position and share with them tools and resources they can leverage to improve the economic conditions of their family. This is an area through which I believe the community can reap tremendous benefits, and am eager to begin these financial education workshops soon.
Agroservicio San Juan – the local business I am formally advising
The final category of my work can collectively be categorized as secondary projects, which in effect is a catch all category for all service work I do outside of my principle focuses within schools and the business community. I have not yet made time or felt sufficiently integrated within the community to begin working on secondary projects, but I am excited to explore a variety of service opportunities in the community in the year to come. Some of the areas I am particularly interested in working on include environmental projects, providing nutrition/diet classes and resources, and forming youth groups surrounding gender equality and environmental justice. Moreover, I have been asked by dozens of community members to start English classes, so may do that as well moving forward – time will tell the tale!
Personal Changes – Personal Reflections
I have changed immensely since arriving in Nicaragua. And I suppose this is a good thing, as the fomentation of personal growth was a major pull factor for my decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. And yet, it is a bit scary. I feel I am changing so much, so rapidly – at times, I feel like a totally different person than I was when I arrived in Nicaragua. And yet, in many ways I feel like I have come to know myself more intimately through the process. Perhaps that is what I get for iterating the following quote so often: “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I have most definitely been, and continue to be, uncomfortable, and from that discomfort continues to burst personal growth and maturation.
Until recently I have been forcing Nicaragua to change to me, rather than allowing myself to change and develop to Nicaragua. I have been trying to ram my square peg into Nicaragua’s round whole, rather than allowing myself to sand down some edges to accommodate the differences embedded within Nicaraguan culture. Whether this be concerning my diet, exercise, use of free time, conversational habits, organization of day, etc., I originally had tried to simply maintain the habits I became comfortable with in the states. However, in recent months I have finally allowed myself to surrender, to allow myself to change and adapt, and feel myself being much happier and relaxed as a result.
Some of the most substantial changes I can identify follow:
I have become more and more comfortable with having a lack of options; becoming content with less.
I have finally allowed myself to start letting go of control and in doing so have become much more flexible. In the process I have become more laid back, more easy going, and less of a perfectionist. (As an example of the flexibility required to integrate here, last month I asked an individual setting up a concert what time the event would start. He immediately responded with 5. I then looked at my phone, and explained to him that it was 5:15. He then casually changed his response to 7. Time here just doesn’t adhere to a strict format, but is malleable and flexible).
I have begun reprioritizing issues in my life. One significant area has been the importance I give to my social life; being social has come to take a central importance in my day, whereas it was always secondary or tertiary at best in the states. In doing so I feel friendlier, more open, and much easier to get along with. Another significant area of reprioritization has come with the heightened focus I now give to animal liberation. While animal rights and combating carnism was of great interest to me in the states, it always took a secondary importance to more ‘pressing’ issues. However, I now understand carnism to be one of the most salient and interconnected systems of oppression active today, that it is responsible for greater suffering than any other issue on Earth, and that it provides groundwork and lends support to the majority of oppressive systems. As such, I have come to believe that it is through actively working towards the eradication of carnism that I can promote the most good with my life.
Finally, I have come to be much less dependent upon WiFi and technology. This change has been somewhat forced, as the only (weak) internet connection accessible to me is isolated to the public park (as such, please forgive any delays in my responses to your emails – but please do send them!) Decoupling my daily patterns and lifestyle from their dependence upon technology has been tremendously liberating, and has opened up significant space for me to give more attention and focus to the things in life that really matter.
However, I know these changes are only the beginning. I am finally starting to feel comfortable and open to deep personal changes, and am excited to carry this perspective with me as I welcome all future changes to come.
As I reflect on my past 200 days within Nicaragua and my first three months of service, I could not be more grateful for my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If you are reading this and have ever considered yourself becoming a volunteer, I can not advocate more strongly your doing so (and this goes for all age groups! PC Nicaragua has volunteers ranging from their early twenties to late seventies!). In many ways my opportunity to serve feels like I won the lottery; in many ways it feels like the most valuable scholarship I could have been awarded, giving me the unparalleled opportunity to develop myself through humble and selfless service to others.
As I end every update, I really do welcome and encourage your responses. I send these updates in part as a solicitation for you to do the same; please never feel a need to provide a comprehensive update (though they are most certainly welcome) – even just a few sentences and a friendly hello really do mean the world to me.
I LOVE YOU!
For those of you with endurance and further interest you can check out my Community Analysis I completed last week! In serves to describe in greater detail the community in which I live and the various dynamics at play. It is second only to my undergraduate thesis in terms of the time and effort I dedicated towards its completion – I hope you enjoy it!
Town Entrance – “Welcome to St. John of the Coconut River”
Gorgeous mountain hikes in northern Nicaragua
Too cute! Though sad how their lives will be so much different from their four-legged dog counterparts
Waterfall Swim! Easily one of my favorite activities in the world.
I don’t get much happier than this!
While coffee dominates, plantations often grow bananas and plantains above the coffee fields to export
A standard pulperia (store) in San Juan selling all the staple grains (beans, rice, corn) vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, green peppers, onions) and other basics like soap and toilet paper.
One of San Juan’s largest and most important stores – think of it as a local Home Depot
King of the Castle! Roosters and hens tend to have free reign (until they don’t…)