Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

19 July 2012


Ha llegado la hora de despedirme de mi linda Nicaragua. Mis dos años aquí pasaron rapidísimos. Claro que habían días difíciles pero gracias al amor de Dios y la amistad de mis amigos y familia Nicaragüense mi servicio de Cuerpo de Paz vio mil sonrisas y pocos problemas. Nunca voy a poder agradecerles de forma adecuada ni comunicar a otros cuanto he aprendido de Nicaragua. Realmente llegue a amar a este país y especialmente al norte y a mi comunidad en el Jícaro. Aunque me vaya ahorita, siempre voy a llevar conmigo un alma pinolera. A todos, les agradezco su apoyo y su amistad y les deseo suerte y salud hasta que nos volvamos a ver. Que Dios les cuide y les bendiga!
Now that the time has come to take my leave of Nicaragua, it is hard to find the right words to convey my feelings. I am, above all else, grateful for the time I have had in Nicaragua and the experiences and relationships that I have enjoyed and been challenged by over the last two years. I have been more than lucky during my time here, I have been truly blessed. Every morning I have prayed for the strength and the patience to deal with whatever challenges the day presented and every night that God would order my steps for the next day. I have never been disappointed.

I am also ready to go home and get started on what's next. It is hard to be too sad about leaving a place when you are excited to go somewhere else. In my last blog post before I left the US for Nicaragua I wrote:

So now it is time to move on. I'm excited again. I may miss the people I'm taking my leave from, but it is their love and support that has allowed me to come to a place where I can step out to wherever I'm called to go in faith and confidence. Nothing changes between us just because we are not together. Leaving is not complicated. It is quite simple. One day you are in one place, with one group of people. The next day you are somewhere else, with different people. The job is still the same. “

I still believe that to be true.

Entonces, me despido. Nos vemos pronto.

29 June 2012

La Lucha Sigue

I love Nicaragua. The last sunrise I see in Nueva Segovia (for now...) is going to be bittersweet. As my service comes to a close though, I find thoughts like “almost done, almost done” running through my head. I'm excited to move back to the States and spend time with my family. There are things that are important to me that just aren't part of my life here. Still, there is a part of that thought— almost done— that I'm not quite happy with.

From very early on in my service, I realized that my life in Nicaragua was not going to be the experience of living in poverty. I have earned too much yesterday (even if I don't use it) and I will earn too much tomorrow (even if I can't use it) to feel truly poor today. Plus, my Peace Corps stipend is designed to be sufficient and is reliably deposited at the end of every month; I have phenomenal health care; and if it comes down to it, I can always quit. No, my experience was never going to be living in poverty. Instead, it was going to be living with people living in poverty. It was not going to be living with uncertainty, but living with people living with uncertainty. And that is exactly what it has been. I have done my best to be of use to my community, but most of the time I am more student than teacher.

I knew something about development before I came to Nicaragua. I could tell you all sorts of stuff about the most cost-effective intervention to avoid pregnancy in teens in Kenya (educating them about the dangers of relationships with older men). I could write ten pages on when subsidizing uptake costs makes sense and when it doesn't. I can still cite you those facts and more. What I can't do is put what I've learned over the last two years in such pithy form. They weren't the kind of lessons that are easy to use to justify policy decisions. They're the kind of lessons that make you love a place and a community and, at the same time, say “I can't wait to go home”. I've learned a lot of them, but even so I know I've only scratched the surface. The surface, however, is deep enough to remember that life in my community is not going to change a bit whenever I take my leave of Jícaro. The issues that are so important to life here, and to so many communities in developing countries around the world, have not improved a whole lot during my two years in Nicaragua. What's more, they exist and are often ignored in the home I'm going back to in a way that is just as pressing as in the home I'm leaving.

Yeah, I'm a bit burnt out. I'm looking forward to sitting around the fire with people I've missed and catching my breath. But “almost done”? No, hombre. No se termina la lucha; la lucha sigue.

20 June 2012


For some time now I've been struggling with the idea behind this blog. At the moment I'm re-reading all my posts over the last two years to see if they at all fulfill the mandate that I set for blog two years ago. The idea was something like this:

Things are not as complicated as we like to make them. We clutter life up on purpose in order to avoid boredom, feel important, and to avoid dealing with certain things in their true form. When you strip away the trappings what lies beneath is more, well, sencillo.

I know I am guilty of hiding behind complexity. If we are ever talking and I try to end an explanation by saying “it's complicated”, please call me out on it. It usually means I'm confused and don't want to admit it. I use similar tactics in my mind and heart to avoid dealing with things that I read or see, especially with regard to poverty. You would think that an odd problem for a self-identifying “development economist” but I think you would be mistaken. It is, in my mind, our Achilles' heal, this desire to explain everything away and reduce things to a series of equations and variables.

I have many friends that work in impoverished areas around the world. Some are academics, some work in Christian missions, some work for organizations with humanitarian missions, some are on short term projects like the Peace Corps, and some have made life-long commitments. In all of these endeavors I have witnessed things that I both admire and question. I envy those who are not afraid to care enough to have their heart broken repeatedly. I admire those who see something that needs done and, quite simply, figure out how to get it done. I am frustrated by good intentions causing more harm than good for lack of cultural understanding or research. I am maddened by inertia, vested interests, and bureaucracy standing in the way of efforts that would achieve positive results. And I am disenchanted with those who (as I sometimes find myself wanting to do) think they can look down from above it all and explain it away.

All of this leads me back to the idea behind the blog. Is it true? Are things simple and we make them complicated? I know I've fought the temptation for the last year to write a series of entries called “Not-so-sencillo” in which I let loose all of the complicated emotions that build up as I walk through life in Nicaragua. Truth is, however, the topics of those entries would have truly been simple. It would have been my responses to them that were complicated.

I think I still believe in Sencillo as an idea, as an ideal, and as the name of my future coffee shop. As a blog, however, I do not. Not my blog, anyway. I will leave it to other, more capable, minds and pens to show us the simple side of life. I hope to keep writing, but it will need to be under a different banner. For most people, however, this blog has not been about the sencillo ideal but about my time in Nicaragua. In that regard I am not quiet finished. I have one month and two posts left. I plan to enjoy the month, I hope you enjoy the posts.

21 May 2012

So you want to join the Peace Corps?

For some reason, most of us who write blogs during our Peace Corps service decide at some point to impose our thoughts, opinions, and advise regarding Peace Corps on anyone among our readership that may be considering such an endeavor. It could be because we benefited from similar advice (I can't say I did) or because we have finally figured this whole experience out (um... that'd be an emphatic no...) and want to make it easier on those who follow in our footsteps, but I think we just like to hear ourselves talk. Maybe that's a bit harsh. I think writing about it helps us process our own experience and come to terms with what we have accomplished and/or failed to accomplish during our service. It appears that I am not immune to this little indulgence.

I don't remember the first time I saw this video, but I have constantly come back to it over the last few years when thinking about how to thrive/survive as a Peace Corps volunteer. I highly recommend that anyone considering joining the Peace Corps watch it. I can, without a single reservation, say that if you join the Peace Corps you will have moments when you are both of the video's characters. Hopefully you will spend most of your time somewhere in the middle. Below I've constructed a little analysis of that middle using five of the video's central claims.

Claim #1: In the Peace Corps you will be helping people and giving of yourself which will, in turn, give meaning to your life.
My short answer to this claim would be: yes, yes, and uh oh you're in trouble.
My long answer is a bit, well, longer. Peace Corps is, in fact, a great opportunity to be of assistance to the people in your community. The first part of our mission asserts that we exist to provide technical assistance and training to host country organizations and individuals in response to their requests. It is also a simple statement of fact that as a Peace Corps volunteer you will give of yourself to your community, maybe/often to an extent that exceeds what you planned, wanted, or even thought yourself capable. The extent to which many volunteers come to care about their host countries and host communities is one of the things that truly sets Peace Corps apart. The mental/emotional toll that the same characteristic can take on a volunteer is one of the things that makes Peace Corps truly challenging.
So I've agreed on the first two points. My caution comes on the third. I believe that, regardless of whether you have a positive or negative experience, the Peace Corps will be a meaningful and important period in your life, but I stop well short of claiming it will provide meaning in itself. Your work will teach you things (probably more than you succeed in teaching others) and it may make you happy, but it will also frustrate you to no end and occasionally convince you (wrongly) that everything you're doing is worthless. If that feeling is allowed to translated itself to “my work is worthless therefore I am worthless”, you are indeed in trouble. 

Claim #2: You will learn a new language, children/people will not be able to understand you, and you will be motivated by these challenges (see also: you're a real piece of work).
There is nothing quite like asking a group of kids to repeat a word you didn't hear or understand only to have them start saying it over and over with increasing velocity until it becomes a perverse game with you at its center. That being said, there's also nothing quite like finding that you can function nearly effortlessly in a language that isn't your own.
Language is one of the toughest parts of PC because the most frustrating thing of all is to not be able to communicate— be it frustrations, needs, successes, or feelings. I came to Nicaragua speaking passable Spanish and language was still one of the most challenging parts of my experience. Sure, the challenges can be motivating and they should be, but they are also tough and frustrating. Its ok to acknowledge them as such, in fact it is both healthy and will keep everyone around you from thinking you're a real piece of work.

Claim #3: You will be 1) healthy and active and engaged in your community, or 2) sick all the time, sleep late and read dumb books.
Most people I know in Peace Corps would simply say: yes. In Nicaragua I have been as sick as I've ever been in my life and I've also run a half-marathon. I've eaten wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables and eaten more instant noodles in a month than I did in my whole college career. I've had months where I woke up at 5:00 am without an alarm and with a spring in my step and months were I drug myself out of bed only to plop back down in my hammock. I have read books I would never have touched back in the States, but I've also learned to play guitar and read a lot of wonderful books that I'd never have had time for if I were living a faced paced life back home. I've worked with over 600 students and helped them with 72 student business projects. I've worked with health volunteers to increase access to sexual health resources and with farmers to market new products and improve business practices. And then there are the things that aren't so easily quantifiable, drawing with kids, talking about culture, teaching people to make popcorn...
I guess the crux of the issue is time. In Peace Corps you will have to deal with a lot of time. Twenty-four months worth of it (in your community). You can put it to all sorts of wonderful uses, both work-related and personal. Hopefully you will feel good about how you use this time. It is important to remember, though, that you will need to dedicate more of that time than you probably think to staying sane. Dumb books have a purpose. Sometime you just need to relax and let your mind have a rest. That's ok. 

Claim #4: You will 1) Never leave your site not wanting to miss out on the “pulse of the community” or 2) Spend your time in the city with your ex-pat friends and hide from your neighbors.
Hopefully you will love your site and love your community. I do. I rarely leave site unless it is for work (partially because I live really far away from... everything). There are, however, plenty of times when I have shut myself in my house and pretended not to be home when a gaggle of children started pounding on my door demanding entrance so they could play with my colored pencils. I'm not proud of it, but I need space.
Getting out of your community can be a good thing. It gives you a chance to see the rest of your host country and to share experiences, frustrations, and successes with your fellow PCVs. The better you know your host country's culture the more able you'll be to find the “pulse” of the community when you're back in site. Also, it can present some pretty cool work opportunities. In the States we take travel for granted. Over the last few years I've had the opportunity to travel with some kids from my community that had never been more than an hour away from home. It's fun to watch them react and interact with other kids from around the country.
Also, like I've said before, sometimes you just need to recharge. You can't give much if you're completely out of gas. Everyone finds their preferred spot to escape. Mine is... well that's a secret.

Claim #5: Peace Corps service will be a time of personal growth and you will love/hate it even though it is the hardest/easiest job you've ever had.
Two years is, at once, a long time and no time at all. I think it is safe to say that Peace Corps will be a time of personal growth, though what form and direction that growth takes is hard to say. Maybe you'll decide to dedicate your life to working in development in a foreign country. Maybe you'll decide you're never leaving the U.S. again. There is really only one way to find out. Yes, some days Peace Corps will be tough and you'll love it. On my best days I'm up before the sun to milk cows, hardly speak English, walk two hours home because a bus broke down, and deal with 50 high-schoolers who may or may have any intention to learn what I'm trying to teach them. I also inevitably say/do something stupid and get laughed at, am mocked for being really white/speaking English, and may not get to take a shower because the water isn't running. Those days I go to bed happy. It is the other days, the days I give one hour of class and spend the rest of the day reading a magazine in my hammock or talking on the phone to another PCV, that I find myself wanting nothing more than to go home.

The Bottom Line (according to me, anyway):
Every Peace Corps country is different and ever Volunteer has a different experience. I'm not sure anything can really predict whether or not you'll have a positive/productive Peace Corps experience except for, well, being in the Peace Corps. Even then there is a huge element of luck involved: right country, right program, right community, right relationships. One thing that is certain is that, as a PCV (you will get used to acronyms... wait, that's not it) you will fulfill three roles in your community. You will be, each in its moment, a learner, a change agent, and a mentor. You can't help but be. Everything around you will be new and different and you will need to understand it if you want to be happy/healthy/productive. You bring with you different life experiences and a new perspective that will help you draw attention to opportunities and generate new ideas in your community (change agent). And finally, everyone will be watching what you do. Little kids, big kids, adults, men, women, everyone. You may never even know who is using your words and your behavior as an example. In all three of these roles, you are on duty 24/7 for 27 months. That's Peace Corps.

So you still want to join the Peace Corps? Go for it then. I'm glad I did.

15 March 2012


When I was in India back in December I was stunned by the shear amount of construction going on. I feel like most of the time I spent in a car was spent weaving our way through construction sites. I would love to have before and after pictures of Chennai twenty years ago, ten years ago, and today. Everyone told me that by the time I go back it will be a completely different place, in terms of physical infrastructure anyway.
While infrastructure investment in Nicaragua can in no way approach the speed or scope of India, its presence and its impact are no less visible. In the last five years, heck, in the last two years, access to the east coast and some of the southern departments have improved exponentially. Here in my community as well, the march of progress continues. More roads are being paved with paving stones. They are building a (rather large) bus station/market. Outside of town a new dump is being prepared. Now especially, everywhere you go you can see people taking advantage of the income provided by the November-January harvests and the adobe/cement drying powers of the dry season sun.

My neighbor is putting in a bathroom. The first step of which involved digging a great big hole. I spent most of the week leaning over the wall and talking to the guys that dug it, watching as they shoveled the dirt, eventually hauling it up with buckets, then hauled it away with an cart and a team of oxen. I've also been watching for over a year now as a decrepit old theater has been renovated into the beautiful structure pictured to the left (and down). Work has progressed piece-meal, when funds and weather allowed it to.

In addition to physical infrastructure, businesses come and go. I wish I knew how many cellphone repair shops, used shoe/clothes shops, and convenience stores have opened and closed since I've been here. We recently got a new laboratory (to do medical tests) and a second internet cafe. We will see if the market is big enough to support them. The laboratory is in a building that has housed at least four different businesses since I first moved to town. That is the way of economic progress though, it stumbles its way forward.

What Nicaragua really needs if it hopes to take advantage of its resources is stability. Fifty years with no major natural or man-made disasters. Time to let the country take advantage of its investment in physical and human capital and to convince the rest of the world that Nicaragua is a stable place to invest. Already you can see individuals and businesses rushing to take advantage of the better connectivity to the east and south. You can also see the population responding to the job opportunities. As I ride the bus I see a lot of young engineers, both men and women, supervising work crews made up of individuals twice their age. Most of my students tell me they want to study engineering of one sort or another because that's where the jobs are.

Is access to this progress uniform and equal across the country or in a single community? Of course not. Not everyone has access to the same technology or the same educational opportunities. Some of my students have internet in their houses and some of them wouldn't have the slightest idea how to turn on a computer. Some of my students will go to college, some of them will dig holes like the one next to my house and haul away the dirt with an oxcart, or maybe a truck. There are plenty of places that aren't getting new roads and whose farmers can't get their milk out to market. While the new roads will make it easier for some farmers, they will put others at a competitive disadvantage. Development as a whole has always made it hard for small farmers. What will the families do that have been small farmers for generations? Families that see farming not so much as a business as a way of life?

I don't know. Some will send their kids to college to be engineers, switch from planting beans to making long term investments in planting coffee and use the higher incomes to hire other people to dig their holes and build their houses. Others will struggle. That's one of the few things I know for sure.

¡Avión! ¡Avión!

A few weeks ago, I went over to one of my counterparts' houses to plan our class. Usually we do a group planning session at my house, but every once in a while something comes up— in my schedule or in one of theirs. I've been working with this counterpart for over a year now, so I've come to know her, her husband (who teaches at another of my schools), and their six-year-old son pretty well. Her son, Nazer, is a smart, confident, little kid who is quite fond of me and loves to tell me what he's doing even if I'm in the middle of planning class with his mom. When I got to the house that day, Nazer was playing with a battery-powered car that moved forward and backward when directed by an attached remote control. He explained how it worked and told me that the batteries were almost dead. We gave it a little nudge in the direction we wanted it to go and managed to get it working. When we started planning our class his mom sent him outside to play so that we could focus on the lesson.

About ten minutes later, I hear Nazer screaming at the top of his lungs: ¡Avión! ¡Avión!. Then, he comes running into the house, still screaming, with one hand above his head pointing to the sky. “¡Avión! ¡Avión! ¡Es un avión!” He ran in a few circles and then headed back out the door. I tried to go back to planning the lesson, but I could still hear him out in the street. Curiosity got the getter of me and I got up and walked outside. Sure enough, there was an airplane, way above the clouds, cruising through the sky. Truth be told, it is the first airplane I have seen in the sky over Jícaro in the twenty months I've lived here.

I became aware of the lack of airplanes in the sky over northern Nicaragua maybe six months ago. I was standing in one of my schools looking out over the hills and was struck by the emptiness of the clear blue sky. Even if I had seen the plane that caught Nazer's attention, I probably wouldn't have noticed the little spec of white moving silently through the sky. I suspect you wouldn't have either. If we had, I know it wouldn't have prompted us to run around the neighborhood shouting at the top of our lungs. I can only wonder how Nazer would react to visiting the airport in Managua or, better yet, standing in the park at the end of the runway of Reagan Natl. Airport in DC and watching the planes drop out of the sky over his head.

What we see, what we notice, and how we react to them are functions of our experiences. I notice things now that would never have caught my eye two years ago. There are also many things that I see every day, things that once caused me to stop and take note, that now slide right past my eyes as if they were so normal that they barely warrant recognition. Not only does this have implications for the way we interact with the place we live from day to day, it has huge work implications for someone like myself who aspires to plan and evaluate development programs and interventions. To have any idea how a project is likely to go, you have to be able to see it the way its participants are going to see it. One of the quotes on my refrigerator, stolen I believe from the 2011 Time 100 profile of Cory Booker, says, “You can best serve what you know.” I firmly believe this to be true and it is one of the lessons I hope I don't forget when I leave Peace Corps.

04 February 2012

South Indian Coffee

After 20,000+ miles and almost a month I find myself back in Nicaragua sitting, not surprisingly with a cup of coffee and my journal open in front of me. For the last seven years that has been one of the more constant fixtures in my life, and it is what I invariably turn back to when I need to relax and sort out my thoughts. The month of December and my vacation certainly left me with much to think over. I visited some friends in Virginia for a few glorious days. I spent New Year's Eve on my favorite block of my favorite beach. I was with my parents and my grandparents for Christmas, which I had spent the entire last year looking forward to. And I traveled to India for my older-brother's wedding. I've tried my hardest to sort through my feelings and find a good blog post: about the amazing wedding, about being back with family, or about how, no matter how much I love it, Nicaragua still isn't Virginia. As I've met with little success I'm going to stick to what I know.

I told my brother that I had to give him credit for at least one thing with respect to his wedding: always having a man whose job it was to make coffee. The wedding festivities lasted for a full two days and, despite not having much of a role to play in the ceremonies themselves, I did change outfits about six times, meet a million new people, take a thousand (literally) pictures. I'm not sure how it would have gone without my constant caffeine buzz. That's not true; it would have still been wonderful, but I do prefer coffee to be a part of any social activity.

My South Indian coffee experience started just a few hours after touching down in Chennai. My plane arrived in the middle of the night and I was driven outside the city to the farmhouse where my family was staying until the wedding. After a few hours sleep I was awoken, not unpleasantly, by the man who was in charge of our stay knocking on my parents' door saying, cheerfully but authoritatively, “Morning! Coffee?! Tea?!” It was a scene that would be repeated daily and that would continue when we moved into the city. I don't usually enjoy being woken up, but you can wake me up whenever you want if you do it by offering me good coffee.

South Indian coffee is somewhat akin to a latte or café au lait in that its principally a combination of milk and some form of coffee (it is often called “milk coffee” so I guess that isn't surprising). Rather than espresso or brew coffee however, the coffee element in South Indian coffee is a a cooked-down, syrup-like concoction. A small amount of the coffee syrup is then combined with sugar and hot milk in one half of a metal tumbler set. The mixture is then poured back and forth between the two tumblers, preferably from a bit of a height, to thoroughly combine the elements and also to aerate the mixture. I, of course, had o shoot a video of the process:

The result is quite delicious. By the time the wedding was over the coffee man knew that I preferred mine without sugar, a characteristic that earned me the same weird looks I get here in Nicaragua when I tell people I don't use sugar in my coffee. Even so, the coffee guy gets my wedding MVP nomination.