Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

04 December 2010


 The 2010 academic year came to a close at the end of November, bringing with it the national entrepreneurship competition.  The Nation Competition is the culmination of the course small business volunteers facilitate during the school year.  Fifth year students, the equivalent of high school seniors in the United States, start in February forming groups that will spend the next ten months choosing a product, writing a business plan and bringing their businesses to life in their communities.  At the end of October they begin to compete at the local level, presenting their products and business plans to a panel of judges.  The winners progress to the regional level and eventually come together in Managua to compete once more and to celebrate their achievement throughout the year.  The Emprendedurismo course seeks to promote confidence and creativity in its students (and teachers).  It has a strong focus on using local resources to meet local needs and solve local problems.  In a business climate where the most common practice (what we like to call the choco-banano effect) is to see success in a neighbor and replicate the same product until all potential for profit has been eroded, Emprendedurismo students learn to add value to the resources available in their communities and innovate on existing products.  They learn to analyze their potential clients and competition, use the cost of producing a product to choose a price, the cost of running the business to decide how many products they need to sell to stay afloat, and how to present their ideas to investors in order to overcome their personal lack of start-up capital.

All that sounds really good, but honestly, it pales in comparison to the self-confidence the students gain during the year.  Personally, my biggest struggle is hearing students say “no puedo” — I can't— and I hear it all the time.  In the second semester of fourth year, the first semester of Emprendedurismo, we spend a lot of time identifying the characteristics of an entrepreneur, a leader, and of each student.  Often, the first time we ask, “Which of the characteristics we just identified do you share with leaders/entrepreneurs?” we get silence and blank papers (And the second time, the third...).  To see groups of students go from staring at their desks to avoid having to answer a question, to standing in front of three distinguished judges in Managua, a city many of them have never even visited, and answering questions on the fly about a product that is their own is a great feeling:

  Judge: So be honest, and this is an important question, did you come up with this product and this process?  Or did you see it somewhere else? 
 Student:  Well, we took the idea from instant potatoes.  Our region produces a lot of beans, and people really like “frijoles molidos” but they take awhile to make, so we  applied a similar process in order to make an instant product that met the needs and tastes of our community.
Do they all get there?  No, of course not.  But hopefully they all learn something. 

03 November 2010

¿Un lustro?

-¡Oy, Jonatán! ¿Un lustro?
-Hoy no, gracias. ¿Vas a estar mañana, a las 7:00?

One of my favorite groups in Jícaro is the kids who work in the park. Most of them are shoe-shiners— lustradores— though some of them sell enchiladas or tejada instead. From the first day I visited my site I knew I wanted to find some way to work with them. It took a while, and it is still a work in progress, but after three months we are friends and we meet together most Sunday mornings. My group ranges in age from about six to twelve and in number from one
(myself) to about eight. Initially I intended it as a business group. For our first meeting I had designed little notebooks for them to keep track of how many shoes they shined and what materials they bought during the week. I had made them picture based because I knew some of them couldn't read or write. They loved the notebooks, even if the kids who showed up were a little younger than I had hoped. They were, aparently, less sold on the project. One kid decided the project was about the shoes themselves and gave his notebook to an uncle who was a shoe maker so he could participate, too. I told him that was great and got him a new one.

I haven't seen any of the notebooks since. 

Regardless of what is on our agenda to discuss, I always bring my colored pencils and a stack of computer paper. We like to draw. One day we were drawing maps of the community. Another day we drew pictures of what we did during a normal day. Usually their drawings contain a suspicious number of the things I had in my example. They tend to be shy and unsure of their own ability to create or decide what to draw. I hear, “no puedo” a lot (I can't), to which I always reply “¡Claro que puedes! Mira, no puede ser peor que lo mio...” (Of course you can! Look, it can't be any worse than mine...”.
Sometimes not being able to draw very well comes in handy. Still, it can be hard to get them to find the courage to admit they want to participate. They like to slide up beside you and watch what you are doing. The first time you ask them if they want to draw they say no. The second time they just shake their head. The third time they just look at you. Or, if you are one particular little 9 year old who sells enchiladas with her 5 year old little sister you say, “Eh, muchacho, creo que ella quiere dibujar.” (I think she wants to draw). She always calls me muchacho, even though she knows my name. To which I reply. “¡Qué bueno! ¿Y vos?” (Great! What about you?).

Every week I try to get them to take their pictures home to hang up. Nobody ever does. So I have them sign their work and tell them I'm going to put them up in my room. I have a stack on the table waiting for me to buy some more tape.

04 October 2010

Frijoles (Beans)

 It is widely accepted (in Nicaragua) that Nicaragua grows some of the best beans in the world. It is also widely accepted (in Nueva Segovia) that Nueva Segovia grows some of the best beans in Nicaragua. It is not uncommon, therefore, to hear people claiming that we have the best beans in the world right here in Jícaro.

True or not, it would be hard to over-state the importance of beans to life in Nueva Segovia. Their cultivation accounts for a large fraction of the income of many families, whether they own the land on which the beans grow or sell their labor during the two harvest seasons. Red beans are by far the most common, though black beans and a few other varieties can also be found in some of the larger markets. In addition to their economic role, beans are also a dietary staple, appearing in many forms: first simmered for hours over firewood with a bit of onion and salt, then served with tortillas and cuajada, ground up (molido), re-fried, put in soup, or fried together with rice to make the classic Nica gallo pinto. Not only are they a dietary staple, but a nutritional one as well. Red beans and rice combine to provide a complete protein.

They are also delicious. I eat them everyday and, after five months, have yet to get tired of them in the least. In fact, I probably like them more now than when I got here. It is likely that, for years to come, you'll find a slowly simmering cast-iron pot of frijolitos in my kitchen, regardless of the country in which my kitchen happens to be located.

Great reliance on an agricultural product comes with an inherent risk. In a good year, beans provide both affordable nutrition and a source of income with which to purchase other food and necessary items. In a bad year, however, you lose both. This year, persistent rains and the resulting flooding have put the current harvest (cosecha) in jeopardy. Many fields have simply washed away. Others have become infected with molds. Harvested crops have been lost and replanting for the next cosecha has been difficult. As the first level in the supply chain, we are unlikely to starve here in Jicaro. We just sell fewer beans into the market, but that means we'll have less money in the months between harvests. The best guard against this kind of agricultural shock is diversification, and, indeed, many larger farms grow a variety of crops (corn, beans, coffee, banana varieties, cacao). The farms with the ability to do this, however, are the ones that are less vulnerable to shocks to begin with. It is the small farmer, working his own small plot, feeding his family with half of what he produces and selling the rest, who stands to suffer the most.

16 September 2010

El orgullo de Nicaragua es azul y blanco

The pride of Nicaragua is blue and white.

This week Nicaragua celebrated its Fiestas Patrias. September 14th is celebrated as the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto and the 15th commemorates Nicaraguan independence. To say that the pride of Nicaragua is “azul y blanco” has two meanings. First, the flag with its white strip land, embossed with the nation's famous lakes and volcanoes, set between blue bodies of water to the east and the west is ubiquitous. It is a beautiful flag. The country takes its national symbols seriously. The national bird, tree, and flower are prominently displayed in every school and in most classrooms, and rarely does a month pass that there isn't a special class devoted to showing proper respect for
the national symbols. But I don't really want to
talk about the flag.

  The true pride of Nicaragua, and its hope and future, is the other azul y blanco— its students. The Nicaraguan school uniform is, as you've probably guessed, blue and white. To celebrate its independence, Nicaragua makes full use of this resource. The majority of my classes this month were canceled because the students were learning to march, practicing with the band (which is all percussion instruments), learning traditional Caribbean dances, or some other activity in preparation for this week. When the Fiestas finally arrived the whole town gathered in the park to watch all the students from all the public schools march around town to the beat of the band and accompanied by a variety of cultural exhibitions. It was quite a show. I can't imagine a similar event being organized in the united states. The only similarity was the look of disinterest that accompanies forced participation on a hot afternoon evident on a large number of the faces. Compulsion or no compulsion, they all did a great job!

I spend the vast majority of my time working in high schools. The purpose of our class is to help give students the tools and the confidence they need to take their educational and economic future into their own hands. They have the rhetoric down. They can tell you that their future depends on themselves and that they are there to learn how to learn to make the most of the opportunities presented to them and to create there own when it seems like none is available. I believe them to be totally capable of all these things. The test, however, will be to see the way they march and dance and beat the drum when they're no longer dressed in azul y blanco.

La sombrilla

Sombrilla, sombrillita
arco iris de color
cuidando la viejita
del brillante sol y su calor

Sombrilla, sombrillita
no una paraguas sos
ni parasol de fancesita
porque no podés pararlos vos

Sombrilla, sombrillita
que fresca sombra tirás
sobre lindas chavalitas
en cuyas manos te quedás

Sombrilla, sombrillita
seguí con tu trabajo
sonriendo allá bonita
hasta el sol esté más bajo.

02 September 2010

1 Septiembre

September is 7 hours and 45 minutes old and I've already watched the sunrise over foggy, rolling hills interspersed with pine trees while listening to the cows say good morning and drinking a cup of sugary coffee cut with milk that I, personally, milked right from the cow into my cup. Maybe it wasn't the best idea, but who could pass up the opportunity to complete that sentence.

Look at Don Francisco's face. He's loving the fact that I want to get up at 4:30 and go learn to milk cows out in the campo. We'd known each other for about three minutes when he first asked me if I wanted to go out to the finca and milk cows (I was drinking a cup of hot milk in his son's house at the time). I said, heck yeah, how about Wednesday. He was also the one that proposed I go take a walk around the hill so I could enjoy the sunrise, that I should take a cup of coffee with me, and that it was only appropriate the I put milk in it right from the cow.

19 August 2010

Cuando llueva... (When it rains)

Today it rained. It very rarely rains all day, nor did it do so today. When the sun rose the skies were clear and blue. When I left school it was downright hot, but the clouds had begun to form. A sudden rise in heat here means two things. First, it means that it's going to rain. More likely than not, it isn't just going to rain it's going to storm. We have beautiful storms here. Second, it means that nobody is gong anywhere. When it rains, nobody leaves their house unless they have to. I'm not sure if this is connected with my earlier observation that Nicas tend not to know how to swim, but I know that if I have a meeting scheduled and it's raining I'm going to be the only one there.
Anyway, today it rained. Luckily, I had only scheduled myself for an afternoon of leisurely planning, so when the first claps of thunder started rumbling and the first relampagos flashed in the distance it wasn't hard to transition into my rainy day routine. Yes, I already have a rainy day routine, and it goes like this. First, I run to the kitchen and put water on to boil. Everybody here loves to drink coffee when it rains. I think it's because they're cold. I don't usually ask questions when people want to drink coffee. Also, most people here either have a finca or have a cousin who has a finca and so they have private coffee sources, café de palo or café puro they call it. It does, however, take awhile to get the water boiling, boil it until it's purified (my chlorine purified water makes horrible coffee... don't even try it), and then get my coffee made. Sometimes it takes longer than the storms, which tend to move in and out pretty quickly, so it is imperative that my first move is to the kitchen. Second, I collect from my room my journal, a few notebooks, and whatever baked good or cajeta that I have stashed away for such occasions. Cajetas are my current go to. My favorites are basically nothing more than shredded coconut and dulce.... a brown sugar-like material made from cane sugar, formed into little bars. They're cheap and delicious. Finally, I retire to my hammock, currently hung in a perfect rain watching spot, strategically positioned to see the rain and take advantage of the breeze coming off the courtyard.
Once I am comfortably settled into my denim hammock (durable, and the mosquitos can't bite you from behind) I adjust my plans away from the first goal of Peace Corps, offering technical assistance in our respective sectors, to the cultural exchange portion of our mandate. As I've already noted, nobody leaves home when it rains. If they do, apparently they come to our home. Today everyone had been out at the finca, so just as I was settling in for the rain storm the whole extended family appeared toting fresh tamales made from new corn (riquísimos!), a new load of plantains, and tons of curiosity about life up north. The rest of my day was therefore: sit in my hammock with my coffee and my cajetas, wait for people to offer me food or sit down and start chatting, and be able to feel perfectly good about it because I'm fulfilling one of the primary goals for which I was sent here.

10 August 2010

Yo debo (I should)

I've been in site for a few weeks now. I've almost earned the privilege of carrying a camera again.

About Wednesday of this week, I let myself highlight the best of the project ideas I've spent the last three months scribbling in my notebook. That was probably a little premature.

I'm in a new place, shouldn't I be taking pictures? I'm starting two years of work, shouldn't I be planning projects? Maybe. There are definitely pictures that need to be taken and projects that need to be planned. I am not yet, however, the person to address those needs.

Currently, I am in the process of trying to understand my new home. I go to work everyday, some days in one of my schools, others at the Cooperativa. I walk around or buy random things from various ventas as an excuse to talk to their owners, but mostly I sit in the park drinking coffee and talking to strangers. Even now I probably don't do this as much as I should. It may be the most important thing I do in the next two years, not only because my most lasting impact may be the impression I leave about North Americans, but because the success of all my other projects and my ability to tell the story of this place when I leave depend on understanding what this place is, who its people are, what they want, what they have, and finally after all of that, what they might need that I can help them with.

This may be my only chance to do things this way. The jobs that offer you the chance to go live in a place for two years and tell you that its OK, even encouraged, to take the first three to six months to get a feel for the area and its people before starting to work on new projects, are few and far between.

I'm not going to lie, it is hard to take things slow. We want to act. In “we” I include both development workers and people in general. We see things that are different to us: different living standards, different patterns of behavior, different social norms, different faces, different landscapes. We see things that we think are beautiful or horrible. We see things that we wish were different or we wish would never change. So what do we do? We think, “I should do something.” Take a picture. Start a program. Give money. But how do we know what we should do if we don't really understand what is going on?

When I take a picture I don't just capture an image; I create an image. My responsibility as a photographer is to make sure that the image faithfully represents the subject and the situation (check out this entry in Ancora Imparo). When you choose a project you decide to spend energy and resources in a way that means other things go undone. It is my responsibility as a project planner to make sure these are well spent and that they serve the interests and needs of their target population, not my desire to be doing something.

Responsible photography is the perfect reminder for me about responsible development work, or responsible decision making. A good picture is a wonderful thing, worth a thousand words so they say. One you understand very well may be worth that much and more. But a picture you don't understand, be it of something beautiful or tragic, may do more harm than ten thousand words can correct. It cements itself into your thinking about a place or group of people. If you use it to teach others, it provides a distorted perspective to your audience which affects the way they feel and act with respect to people they haven't met and places they have never been.

Laguna de Apoyo
The view from one of my schools
I do love photos though... here's a few from my first few months.

17 July 2010

Café simple: negro y amargo

This is a story about coffee, a history of my relationship with the beverage, but it is also about cultural sensitivity and adaptation. To me, coffee is a wonderful beverage with many complexities and varied possibilities. From tree to cup, there are many things that can go wrong, but when it all comese together it is a beautiful thing. Cultural adaptation and sensitivity are similar.

My first experience with coffee came at a truck stop when the restaurant accidentily mixed it with my hot chocolate. I was ten. It was a Big Boys, and I believe my little brother Mark stuck his finger in a hollow cheese-stick and got burnt. Years later, I asked for my first cup of coffee voluntarily on a flight to italy. I only drank a few sips and thought it was disgusting. After the airline coffee debacle, my coffee history goes dark for another five years. Then, one fateful night in Fitzhugh 141 I looked up from the paper I was writing and declared, “Ali I need a break. Let's go for a walk; I want a cup of coffee.” it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do late on a thurs/fri. Night for a college student hard at work and in need of a break (regardless of how inappropriate the fact may be that we were writing papers at 10:00 pm on a thurs/fri. Thus, I bought my first cup of coffee from Cross-Roads in O-Hill dining hall at the University of Virginia. I've forgotten exactly what it was, but I know I put about an inch of milk in it, and that it was good. The rest is history. I've drunk a million cups since-- café cortado and café con leche in Peru, straight espresso and café au lait in France, but more than anything else, made in so many different ways I can't even count, my drink has become straight, black coffee.

When I found out I was coming to Nicaragua I was excited for some good coffee. My favorite coffee at home is a fresh brewed cup of Selva Negra Estates, a Nicaraguan coffee grown in Matagalpa, from Shenandoah Joe's in Charlottesville. I was excited because coffee is something I really enjoy, not simply as a beverage but as a cultural practice, as a social medium and as an economic topic. I thought it would be a point on which my new culture and I could mesh, over which we could sit and have a chat. The suprise was then on me when I arrived to find that the overwhelming preference in my pueblo was café instantaneo (instant coffee), and not just instant coffee, but sickeningly sweetened instant coffee. Sometimes they make it with milk instead of water. Having already claimed to love coffee, and being inundated with session after session preaching, “adapt, adapt, adapt!” I smiled and spent my first few weeks drinking maple syrup with my h-mom.

Before you judge this decision, let me go a bit deeper. When we go into a new culture and seek to adapt and be sensitive we are presented with a million and one questions, a million and one decisions to make. Their basic form is this, “What are you going to do here? What are you going to pick up of their ways? What are you going to put down of your own ways?” Changing the way you drink coffee seems to be a fairly innocuous change to make for your new culture. In the last statement, however, lies the mistaken assumption on which the problem of cultural adaptation is built.

Coffee can, in fact, be an innocuous cultural element. When I drank my airline coffee, or that first cup in college, there was a cultural component in my mind that was telling me it was the culturally appropriate thing to do. In one case it didn't stick; I didn't like it; it didn't fit in with me and who I was, so I dropped it. Years later, it did stick; it did fit; and it became a point of interest, comfort, and reliability. When someone offers me a cup of coffee, I always accept and don't turn up my nose because it is super sweetened Presto. It is still an innocuous cultural element, but for exactly that reason it makes no sense to drop my old preferences. Cultural adaptation is not the process of laying aside all you can of one culture to take up another. It is not avoiding sensitive topics or awkward discussions. It is the process of finding a happy, acceptable, sustainable “you” in a new place. Sure, you pick things up and put things down, but you don't put yourself down in the process. The coffee conundrum was easily solved. “I'm going to make coffee; I bought some beans at the store. Would you like some? How do you like your coffee? At home I usually drink mine without and sugar or mild, what would you call that here?”

“Café simple: negro y amargo”

01 July 2010

Chocolate Milk and Doughnuts

My mind has been on chocolate milk and doughnuts and on tractors working this week. I had chocolate milk the other day but I don't think they have my favorite cinnamon sugar doughnuts here.

Sometimes we come across things that transcend time and culture. Some events, some phenomena are more human than anything else. They do not belong to countries; they recognize no borders. At times they seem few and far between. At other times, nothing could be closer or more real.
One of these phenomena is this: If there are people working (with or without tractors), there will be other people— not working— standing around watching them work.

Some of you need no further description. You knew me when I was little and liked nothing more than to watch tractors working. You know others who are fascinated by any project in motion. But for the rest of you let me elaborate.

For the last two weeks Nandasmo has been abuzz. First they were replacing the water line, which happens to run right under the main (read: only) road. This involved a small army of men prying up the individual paving stones in the road and digging a massive ditch. It also involved a slightly larger army of towns-people, mostly older men, sitting on their porches all day watching the work progress.
Now, they are in the process of replacing the whole road. Even I have to stop and contemplate their progress everyday as they work to fit thousands of vaguely hexagonal blocks together on a gentle down-slope. It is especially remarkable when you take into consideration that they're positioning each block by hand and using tools like two 2x4's connected to a large cinder-block as a tamper.
The details, I guess, are different. But the details aren't what's important, what unites us. It is the idea that transcends so many differences... that no matter where we come from, no matter what our job is, what language we speak, how much money we make, whether we've ever driven a car or seen snow, we love to sit around and watch other people work on stuff.

26 June 2010

Dieciocho Pesos

Eighteen cordobas (about 85 cents) entitles you to an experience and a show. It is interactive and ever changing. You could watch it everyday and it would never cease to be different. Like many good shows, it starts with a good hype man, spinning his tale and luring the audience into his orbit. He calls out and gestures, the tone of his voice rising and falling, his hands gesturing, sometimes subtly and sometime wildly. Whatever his method, he is good at his job, for soon the theater is full, to full usually, leaving many patrons standing in the isles and cramming together. They lean on each other for support, clutch their bags and children as to not lose them in the fray. Closer and closer they pack together as more and more people are lured in by the hawkers cry. Vendors filter through the throngs of people, selling refreshments which they carry on their shoulders or their heads to keep them out of harms way. Many people avail themselves of the refreshments. After all, it's hot in the theater, really hot now that there are so many people. Many of them are starting long days, or finishing long days, and so the lure of a plastic bag filled with sugary fruit juice, or milk, cacao and cinnamon, is too much to resist. But with so many people there is no room for garbage cans, so most of them just throw the spent bags out the window of the theater.

As the show gets going the music begins. It is obvious that the speakers were added well after the theater was built. Sometimes you can even see the wires, but they sure are loud. One cannot predict the soundtrack of the show any more than the action. Sometimes you're treated to reggaeton, sometimes it is a collection of English-language music from the eighties, sometimes it is worship music, and sometimes it is the stylings of the romantic-pop-sounding group known as Aventura. It changes every day, but it is usually loud. With this backdrop the drama of the show unfolds. In any showing countless short friendships are developed and then left behind forever. Sometimes screaming school children make appearances. More often than not a fair number of chickens make an appearance. Sometimes the script is a comedy, be it slapstick or something more subtle, like citizens wearing clothes that say funny things in languages they don't understand. Other times the script is more solemn, full of beggar children that ought to be in school looking for money to buy food, or older people sick or stricken with a deformity seeking some spare change to go toward medication or an operation. Regardless of the script, it is always accompanied with an equally varied collection of images flashing across the many screens lined up behind the players: beautiful images of fields and cloudy skies, of volcanoes and lakes, as well as sad images of emaciated horses and mud-floored huts. Only two things are certain. The first is this, that the show and the experience are never exactly the same twice. The second is that the hawker will continue to pull more people into the show as it rolls forward: ¡ Managua, Masaya, Masaya, Managua!

For there is always room for one more person in this traveling show.

Eighteen cordobas will also buy you a bus ride from Nandasmo to Managua.

17 June 2010

Hay Bulla

Noise is part of life everywhere. The more accustomed to a place we become, the more all the noise fades together to form a backdrop that grounds our daily activities in something familiar. Eventually, we stop noticing many of the sounds, but they're still there.
At night I like to try to tell time based on sound. Life in the street— moto taxis and buses passing, children screaming, people talking, hawking their food products, houses blasting music out into the road— starts to die down around 10:30 or 11:00. 11:00-2:00 a.m is the dominion of drunks and dog fights, of cats running across roofs, all of which give way to a brief period of near silence around 3:00 a.m. Sometimes the silence is broken by wave-like rounds of rooster calls. The people here say that when an animal is making noise at a time that isn't its own it's because someone is going to die. The roosters' time starts around 4:00 or 4:30. That gives them an hour to themselves, that they only need share with the early bus that honks its arrival, before the tortilla man, the egg lady, and the trucks sounding the day's advertisements through speakers piled in thir beds fill the morning with their messages.
The day is harder to classify because there are so many sources of sound. The clip-clop of ox hooves compete with cars and taxis, whistles, music, dogs chasing bicycles, trucks buying scrap metal, selling cheese, pigs squeeling, recess at the instituto, bombas launched from metal tubes to celebrate...something, thunder in the distance. Sometimes, however, it rains and the rain washes away everything else. It washes away the dirt and trash in the street, all the animals run and hide, the people retire to their houses and the myriad sources are replaced by the snare-drum cadence of raindrops on a tin roof. Even conversation stops when it gets too loud to talk in the house. Then the rain stops, as quick as it began, and all the noise begins to rise again to fill the void.
Hay bulla. Siempre hay bulla.

28 May 2010

Está mojado

I arrived in Nicaragua just in time for the season change. Last week everything was defined by the fact that it was really, really hot. This week, we got our first rain storm of the winter. Even though we're still in the northern hemisphere, May-Sept. Is winter here— that means it rains everyday.

I'm quickly becoming enamored with the sky. The air has so much water in it that the cloud formations are beautiful. The weather changes rapidly, probably because its a small country dropped between two massive bodies of water. Taking pictures is tough because the moisture makes the air hazy, but sleeping under a tin roof that barely leaks, in a house cooled by the winds that brought the rain in and are already taking it out again is glorious... even if my running clothes and my towel refuse to dry.

21 May 2010

Hace calor

The sun has been down for over three hours. I'm in my room, writing by my headlamp because my mosquito net is tucked between my inch thick pad and the wood-slatted bed. I like my bed, its really comfortable. My mosquito net is like a cool yellow tent of personal space, so I like it too.

My thermometer, however, tells me that it's still 85 degrees. It's cooled off a good 10 degrees in the past hour.

One of my goals here is to learn more about decision making. How do people subjected to different constraints make decisions? How do I make decisions when I'm subjected to a new set of constraints?

The first constraint I'm contemplating is that the fact that I only get a few cordobas a week ($1=20 cord). Nope, it is that it is hot, really, really, hot.

06 May 2010

Me Despido

(Despedirse: To say goodbye, to leave)

Sometimes I find that I am very fond of imaginary lines in time— like midnight. When I was in college I would always make sure that I was asleep by 12:00 AM if I'd had a bad day so that I could get up and start fresh the next morning without my bad day polluting the one that followed.

Starting a new month always makes happy as well.

I am markedly less fond of New Year's Eve.

While I find going to bed early after a long day to be a helpful way to end one endeavor and wake up refreshed and focused on the day that follows (rather than the day that passed), I feel that unnecessary pressure is placed on starting a new year. We put things off until the new year. We say we're going to make changes. We set aside habits to pick up, or put down. We expect to feel different, to be different.

I believe we build up the same expectations around saying goodbye, or around starting something new.

The temptation is not unfounded. It is good to be excited about something new, to look forward to adventures and experiences and lessons learned. It is not bad to be slightly saddened at parting ways for awhile with people you care about. At some point, however, it begins to resemble New Year's.

I know this struggle first hand. Last spring, as I prepared for graduation, I had an idea about what I wanted to do when I graduated and how I wanted to do it. I was excited. I looked forward to work I thought would be exciting and fulfilling. And maybe it would have been, but it didn't work out and I was forced to go back to the drawing board. As I did, I came to realize that the position didn't matter so much, rather it was the work itself that I wanted to do. What I needed was an opportunity. That is how I ended up applying to the Peace Corps. My interview went wonderfully. My recruiter told me that, if I was patient, I could expect to be doing development work somewhere by the following summer.

And all of a sudden, Peace Corps became something else. Something to look forward to. Something to hope for. Something that would be more fulfilling, more enjoyable, more “me” than what I was doing at the moment— Peace Corps became New Year's.

The last year has been difficult at times. I love my family dearly, but I've done a less than perfect job of showing it. I've missed opportunities to build community and to live out love at work, at church, and in my friendships. Now, even when we're fully living here and now we never do these things perfectly, but I know my mentality of constantly looking forward to what was coming next exacerbated these failings. Not only that, it set me up to fail when, eventually, I would get the chance to do the work I was so looking forward to. Luckily for me, I had a long time to wait.

One morning in March I woke up excited for the day ahead. I mean, really excited. I was in a beautiful place. I had a pot of coffee brewing, and I was getting ready to spend a day skiing with some awesome people. I pulled open my laptop and found an email I had been waiting for for almost a year: “Congratulations on becoming an Invitee”. As I waited for everyone to get up the following thought crossed my mind.

“Really?” I asked, “I wait for an entire year and you tell me that I have an invitation on the one day that I'm more excited for what is going on today than about going to Peace Corps?”

In the next week my expectations began to collapse. Since I was away from home, my parents had to call me and give me the details of my invitation. I heard the words, but it was dispassionately. I felt bad because I knew I probably sounded depressed on the phone. I wasn't, I just didn't know what to think anymore. I still, however, had plenty of time to wait.

I spent time at home in Pennsylvania and in Virginia. I talked to friends, many of whom had just come back from doing good work in cool places. I listened to their experiences and their thoughts. They listened to mine. They listened to my concerns that I was building my next experience up in my head to be something that it was never intended to be and never could be, and they were still excited for me. Gradually, I began to get excited again as well. I knew that it was going to be difficult at times. I knew that I couldn't know exactly what to expect from the work itself, or hope to be able to immediately see the results of what I was doing or even know what it was I was learning. I knew that, ultimately, it can not be the goal to find ultimate fulfillment in where I am and what I am doing.

I know I had always been able to say these things, but now I understood how easy it was to over-look them. My job is simply to do the best I can, make the best choices I can, and take advantage of the opportunities presented to me— every day. Each day is a new day, just a new day, even if it happens to be January 1st , or my last day at home, or my first day in Nicaragua.

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.

Entonces, me despido. Nos vemos pronto.

23 March 2010


Sencillo: (adj.) modest, unassuming, simple

Someday I’m going to run a coffee shop called Sencillo.

Each cup of brewed coffee will be made to order. Espresso based beverages will come in one size to maintain a specific ratio of coffee to milk. Everything will be fresh and our staff will be skilled and knowledgeable. Inside, the shop will feel more like a pub than a coffee shop, with baristas working behind an old wooden bar and plenty of quiet corners tucked away for work and conversation. The goal will be a simple, high quality, coffee experience. No frills, no elaborate nomenclature, no cocktail-like combinations of syrups and flavors. Coffee done simply.

But what is simple? What does it mean? Surely there are many elements that must come together to produce a good, straight-forward cup of coffee, aren’t there? Do the many steps, the intricacies of the process, or the subjective idea of “high quality” mean that simple is an illusion? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

Something can be layered, multifaceted, the culmination of a thousand miles made up of a million steps, and be quite simple, quite modest, humble, and unassuming. I feel that rocks fit wonderfully into this description, shale specifically. Each particle has a story and a history. Together, however, they are a piece of shale. Life is like that, isn’t it? It can be complicated to no end, if we want it to be, if we let it. We can try to break down every emotion and every feeling. We can grasp at comprehension and understanding, delving deeper and deeper into the details until they add little or nothing to the understanding of the whole to which they belong. Rocks are rocks. Coffee is coffee. People are people.

I know that I’m often guilty of making things more complicated than they need to be. I like to analyze things, to try to understand how they work and why they exist. I like the details, but the more I see the details the less I see the whole picture. The goal of Sencillo, the blog, is to dispense with the frills and the elaborate nomenclature that hide the whole of an experience just as Sencillo, the coffee shop, dispenses with the frills and complications of having a good cup of coffee.

So welcome! Thank you for coming. I hope you’ll stay and talk awhile.


J.G. Malacarne