Enough clutter. Enough confusion. Enough complications.

22 December 2011


(Written November 2011)
Green hillsides are tinged with yellow, signaling that it's time to start pulling beans again. Coffee farmers are scrambling to line up workers to start “buscando la rojita”, looking for the little red-haired girl, the bright red coffee cherries that account for such a large part of the country's exports. In my garden, the eggplant bushes (I call them bushes because they are gigantic and because eggplant plants sounds funny) are weighted down with bright purple fruit. And after a year and a half of working with the same kids, I'm preparing five of my 200 students for the national business-plan competition. That's what the coshecha is all about. You work hard all year long; you pray for rain and a little luck; and when the time comes, you get to see the fruits of all your labor. Si Dios quiere.

Finding your cosecha moment can be tough in Peace Corps. The vast majority of projects do not turn out the way we intended or go as smoothly as we would have liked. We work with people. Most of us work with kids. Since we don't have resources, we mostly teach people things. Well, we try to teach people things. You can't make someone learn. If you do succeed, you may never even know. What my kids learn in their entrepreneurship class may help them out down the road, but I probably won't be around to see. I have enjoyed watching my eggplants grow because they provide such a nice foil to that experience. Sure, I can't control the rain or the sun, but I know what is supposed to happen if everything goes right. The seeds germinate. Little seedlings grow to transplant size and move to the garden. They grow bigger, put down roots, and eventually flower. Along the way I help them along the best I can: providing some water when the rain fails, battling caterpillars and grasshoppers, staking the plants so they don't blow over in the wind. If things go well, I am rewarded with bright-purple eggplants.

My students take no such easily identifiable path, nor journey to such a readily defined destination. The grasshoppers and caterpillars that impede their growth are not so easy to see or deal with. We set the end-of-the-year business plan competitions as a goal to work toward, but when the time comes even those can serve as a stumbling block for the teams that don't advance to the next level. Only two of the thirty-five student groups I worked with this year advanced to the regional competition. Only one of those groups (and only one of the more than 150 student groups formed in the department of Nueva Segovia) will have the opportunity to participate in the national competition.

I am not overly concerned with whether or not my kids win the national competition. Sure, it will be nice to watch them stand up on stage and prove that they learned what I was trying to teach them, but if it earns them a prize is of little interest to me. The group I am taking is from a small, rural community. In October, our trip to the regional competition was the first time most of the kids had ever been to Ocotal, which is only two hours away. Now, they are preparing to go to the nation's capital. They will have an opportunity to meet and get to know (and sure, compete with) kids from all over their country. Most of them will never visit the communities (or even the departments) represented at the competition, but now they will have names and faces to put on kids their own age that live there. For me that is more than enough.

(December 2011: The student group Naturalmente Alternativa and their banana flour, which I will personally attest makes great pancakes, did a wonderful job and had a great time at the Feria National de Emprendedurismo. They also took home a prize for Most Creative Product.)

14 November 2011

A Tribute: The University of Virginia

During my first week in Virginia I attended a an assembly on the Lawn, the focal point of the University of Virginia, along with all the other first-year students. We were welcomed to the University; we signed the Honor pledge; and on each of our chairs there was a nickle, which, of course, bears the image of our founder: Thomas Jefferson. Every day that I have been in Nicaragua I have carried that nickel in my wallet.

I have an interesting relationship with my university. Talk to almost anyone who went to UVA and they will tell you the same thing. It is a trait that connects us to each other and occasionally earns the ire/scorn (*cough*envy) of those who don't understand it. The University of Virginia is my university in a way that is somewhat akin to the way that my parents are my parents. That is to say, it is somewhat of an error to use the possessive. The only claim I can make on my parents is that I owe them my existence and that it was their care and nurturing that made me into the person I am today. It is a similar (though admittedly much smaller) claim that I make on Mr. Jefferson's University. Without its ideals, without its dedication to excellence, integrity, and service, without the people I met there and the things we learned and did together, I wouldn't be where or who I am today.

One of the biggest challenges of the Peace Corps life is staying motivated. Getting out the door is the first obstacle. I've always had a thing about doors, gates, and the significance of crossing thresholds. My time at UVA definitely accentuated that affinity. The gate leading to each and every garden is unique. If you peer through the keyhole of the Rotunda door you are looking right at the statue of Thomas Jefferson. And above certain doors, and certain gateways, there are inscriptions. Two of these inscriptions are particularly significant to me.

First, a word about motivation. Motivation isn't a trick. It isn't about bargaining with yourself. It's about remembering why you made a decision in the first place and then finding the drive to follow through. Remembering is all about being reminded, having something on your finger, or on your wrist, or in front of your eyes so that you can't forget. In college, most of my classes were in one particular building. That building had a door, an out of the way, side-door on the south-west corner. Above that door was an inscription:
You are here
to enrich the world
and you impoverish yourself
if you forget the errand.

I now have the same words written on the door to my refrigerator, right in front of my eyes as I sit in my hammock (which I do a lot). It is a warning against pride and vanity and it is a reminder that the harder I work and the more I put myself out there, the more I get back in return. (There are five other inscriptions on my refrigerator, but that's for another day.)

The second inscription that was particularly meaningful to me at UVA was found above an archway marking an entrance to central Grounds. Exactly where I don't think I'll say, but it now hangs above my front door so that I have to walk under it every time I leave the house.
By this Gateway
And Seek
The Way of Honor
The Light of Truth
And the Will to work for Men

I used to go out of my way to walk through that archway. Sure, it is just a collection of brick and mortar with some words over it. Choosing to walk through it, however, was my way of accepting its charge. Now it is just a piece of paper duct-taped to the wall, but I hope I would take it down before I would idly walk under it.

There are many other things I could have talked about in my tribute to UVA and its contribution to my Peace Corps service. I could have mentioned the Virginia flag proudly hung on my bedroom wall or the fact that when I'm really down in the dumps I put on my UVA shorts and my C-Ville 10-miler t-shirt. I could have talked about how I felt when my green Virginia baseball cap abandoned me to continue its adventures alone or my offering to buy a security guard friend a new hat when he showed up to work wearing one that was a frightful combination of maroon and orange. But those are just funny stories. My real tribute to the University of Virginia isn't wearing the right colors, but rather having the right motivation when I walk out the door.


26 October 2011

A Tribute: Outside Magazine

I have often credited New Belgium Brewery with being the pivotal link in the chain of events that led to me deciding to pursue an extended experience of living and working in the developing world. Toward the end of my third-year and over the summer that followed I was working on applications for a variety of jobs— as a consultant, as a statistician, and as a research assistant— but very few of them were ever turned in. Mostly because I didn't really want them. It got so bad that I felt physically sick when I tried to write a cover letter. Then, one afternoon, I read about New Belgium Brewery: their work philosophy and their incentive scheme to encourage healthy living and environmentally friendly commuting. I liked the idea. Not just a job, but a life. The magazine in which that article appeared was Outside.

Outside has long been a fixture in my family. Good writing. Great gear reviews (I almost always buy my trail-running shoes based on the previous year's Gear Guide best buys... they're cheaper). Content that nails my interests, and, on top of it all, beautiful photography. You can always count on the writers of Outside to provide something to dream about (that heli-ski trip in Alaska or the ridiculously expensive adventure lodge in Chile), something to think about (Urban sprawl, upheaval in the Middle East, the future of green architecture), and something to act on (the best adventure races near you, quick outdoors getaways in your city). Whatever your mood— dream, think, or do— Outside has you covered. 
This past spring, my grandma bought me a subscription and every month she and my mom send me the newest issue. When it arrives it usually sits in the post office for a week or two, waiting for someone to pass through Ocotal headed for Jícaro (a two hour trip). Sometimes the magazine takes a detour. One poor issue (September 2011) sat in the post office for a week before being picked up by my friend Paul, who held on to it until one of my bosses came through the following week. My boss got it from Paul and tried to come visit me, only to be turned back by a roadblock protesting one thing or another. The magazine then went to Managua, where it stayed until one of the other Peace Corps staff members visited my friend Lexi, who gave it to me as I hopped on a bus to go to Esteli. Sadly, I left the magazine on the bus when I got off and it continued its journey into the unknown. (Outside, upon hearing the story from my mother, sent me a new copy, which has almost completed its journey to Jícaro.) When an issue finally gets here, I invariably spend the following Saturday in my hammock, leaving only to walk to the corner store and buy coffee. Sunday, I pass it along to my site-mate Natalie. All of us look forward to a new issue making its way to Nueva Segovia.
The reason I so look forward to each issue of Outside is bigger than the magazine itself. One of my major struggles during Peace Corps has been feeling unbalanced, feeling like only some parts of myself and my personality are being expressed. I miss standing on top of mountains in the middle of the night, jumping of cliffs into lakes, the sense of anticipation you get eying up a ski run, running without being chased by dogs or laughed at, and hanging out at the bar after a long week just chatting with my friends. They aren't just activities, they are expressions of self. Every month when I get my new issue of Outside, those parts get a little attention. What I read injects something new and different into my daily life. The fresh look at things helps me me put my current experiences into perspective or makes me challenge something I used to think. Aerial photography of development in the west helps me think about urbanization and infrastructure development (Nicaragua is urbanizing at a rate of 2% per year). A ranking of the 19 best towns to live in (for the outdoors/adventure inclined) lets me ponder how such places and the establishments in them have come to be and why they exist in some places and not others. Then, of course, there is the yearly Best Places to Work issue... we've already seen what that makes me think about.

In Nicaragua I spend a lot of time developing new aspects of myself by playing with little kids and working with small farmers. I also spend time deepening other aspects, patience and flexibility, also my already impressive ability to drink coffee and ponder things. When I leave, they will demand a measure of attention just like the parts of my personality that currently feel out of place. That's the price you pay for stitching together a self from so many different places. Thankfully, there's always something like Outside Magazine waiting to help you make sense of them all.

Next up: Need I really say it? If you're allergic to nostalgia better start running...

14 October 2011

A Tribute: Crooked Still

There are many things that I have come to associate with Nicaragua. Rice and beans. A particular shade of green. Sentences that start with “fíjese que” and end with “gracias a Dios.” But twenty years from now, long after I've taken my leave from Jícaro, it will be the fiddle solo from Crooked Still's Undone in Sorrow that instantly sends my heart back to the days of riding old school buses down muddy roads through rolling hills.

I first saw Crooked Still play in Charlottesville, VA in the spring of 2010. I was making a last trip to C-ville to see some friends and ended up tagging along to a show on the downtown mall. Something about that night struck a chord that is still ringing. Maybe it was just the fact they are wonderful musicians. Maybe it was walking out into the cool VA night with my best friends and the words, “I'm young, the world is wide” still ringing in my ears. Or maybe Some Strange Country just sounded like the perfect album title for someone moving to Nicaragua for two years, but whatever it was it was immediate and it would prove to be lasting.

Now, Nicaragua is a beautiful country with a great poetry/folk-music tradition so maybe I would have continued my journey with Crooked Still regardless of where I was assigned after training. Then again, my musical interests had been few and fleeting since I gave up the saxophone freshman year of high school. As fate would have it, Peace Corps sent me to live here, with this man:

a banjo-wielding Agriculture volunteer from Michigan's UP as a site-mate. The first time we talked about music I mentioned Greg Liszt— Crooked Still's banjo player— and Kyle says, “yeah I've met him” and launches into Little Sadie. Music was soon cemented into my service. I started to learn guitar and a bit of banjo. Soon, Natalie (a Health volunteer from Iowa), arrived toting a mandolin and fresh off her own pre-Peace Corps Crooked Still concert. For the next year I wandered through a world of new experiences, full of highs and lows, sometimes feeling right at home and sometimes tremendously far from it, but with Aoife O'Donovan's voice smoothing things out and keeping me connected to that night in Charlottesville, in my other mountains and my other home.

In July I made my first trip home in 15 months. Of my six days in the States I spent two in New York getting my visa for my brother Tim's wedding in December. As it happened, Crooked Still was playing one of those nights at the Rockwood Music Hall, an amazing, tiny little venue in Brooklyn. I sat on the balcony with my brother and a good beer (family and good beer, two of the things I miss most), with a big smile on my face as everything that I'd experienced between my two Crooked Still shows flashed before my eyes. . Corey DiMario's double-bass— the first time I came down the hill into Jícaro— Greg Liszt's banjo— my shoe-shine boys and their friends drawing with my colored pencils in the park— Tristan Clarridge's cello— swinging in my hammock with a cup of coffee watching the rain— Aoife O'Donovan's voice— a class full of 16 year-old's in blue and white uniforms— Brittany Haas' fiddle— sunrise in Nueva Segovia. Sadly, (though deservedly) they are taking a break from performing in 2012 so I won't be able to book-end my Peace Corps service with Crooked Still concerts, but that night in New York everything was perfect.

Thanks guys.

Next up, Outside Magazine

Mid-service writer's block

I've been struggling through my mid-service writer's block for the last month. Writer's block is tough on me as my writing is my preferred way to process what's going on around me. While I was waiting for it to pass, I started to reflect on some of the things that have helped me deal with the past 17 months. There was, of course, my family, who received a brief hat-tip a few posts back, and some other things that I've picked up along the way like my hammock, stack of books, and my guitar. I thought briefly of including my camera (the Canon G11 definitely deserves a hat-tip, it's amazing), but I have a love/hate relationship with pointing it at things. I also thought of all my under-6 friends in Jícaro and sunrises with the cows out in the mountains, but they are part of life here and I was looking for something from the outside, a tribute to people/places/and things that have no idea they've been playing an integral part in my Peace Corps service. What resulted were the three tributes which will appear over the coming weeks. Keep an eye out!


15 August 2011

Suggested Reading

For those of you looking for a bit of extra reading, I highly recommend this Wanderphilia entry.  It's a great blog in general.

And since my last post was photoless


When I first moved to Jícaro I went out to look for some plastic containers. I needed something I could store leftovers in, use to freeze things (well-drained soy meat, for example), or just trust to keep my lunch and my backpack separate. As I wandered from place to place I found myself surprised and dismayed at the price of simple, closeable storage options. Thirty córdobas here, twenty-five there, but by far the most common price I saw on the type of vessel I was seeking? Seventy cords!

The stores that sell plastic goods, pots, pans and other household goods often call themselves “variedades”. You could translate it as “variety stores”, though in my mind I usually think of something more like “everything that would fit in the truck”. Variety just seems too coherent a word to describe a place that will sell you heavy frying pans, cartoon character sippy-cups, mangoes, green coffee, blocks of refined cane sugar, soccer cleats, fabric by the yard, shampoo, plastic garbage cans, leather belts and a microwave. These stores are, however, one of the few places in Jícaro that label merchandise with its price. I was especially appreciative of this fact during my early days in site. For me, knowing what things should cost is a big part of feeling comfortable in a place. Not knowing the bus fare from one place to another, a good price for a pound of onions, or the average price of a cup of coffee or a beer leaves me feeling out of place and at risk of being taken advantage of. That may be because, here, if you don't know what things should cost you end up paying double for them. Anyway, after browsing through Variedades Luz for awhile, I ended up with a set of three plastic containers for which I paid about seventy cords. Not bad, considering that the ones I really wanted appeared to run seventy cords a piece.

The strangely expensive plastic containers continued to bother me. Then, about a month or so later, I started noticing strange math mistakes in all my classes. My students having trouble with math was not overly surprising, but it usually results in them leaving questions blank because they didn't have their calculator, not in making calculation errors. After about a week of seeing the numerical equivalent of “seventy times three equals thirty” and “twenty-seven divided by three equals seven” it finally hit me: they are misreading my sevens as ones. Which, of course, meant that I was misreading their ones as sevens.
 Turns out, the Nicaraguan one looks like this:

     and the seven like this:

Simple little misunderstanding, right? Now I write my examples and homework problems with the Nica seven and am no longer fooled by outrageous plastics' prices (10 cords, not 70). If I have doubts, I know to ask and now that my Spanish and my confidence are much higher that isn't as difficult. But the story isn't over.

Understanding the Nica seven is very cultural adaptation. The cross-bar on the seven isn't natural to me, but I've learned to understand it and I've used it over and over again for the last eleven months. Sometimes I forget, other times I find myself doing it without thinking. But on occasion something more interesting happens; I look at something I've written (a phone number) or I think about something I am writing (a date) and get caught somewhere between the two ways of writing the number seven. Was I talking to a Nicaraguan and using my Nicaraguan numbers when I copied the phone number? I know this form is going to the Peace Corps office, but will they misunderstand me if I don't put the crossbar on the seven? Will I misunderstand myself later? It is a neat little summary of my cultural adaption process. For me, cultural adaptation isn't so much learning to live and function seamlessly in a new and different place as it is navigating smoothly in a world where there are a million little things that are done differently or have a different meaning than what you originally learned.

Many of these little cultural differences are communicative. Even when firmly in the middle of our own culture we often make the mistake of thinking that everyone communicates the same way we do (Hi Mum!). Outside one's own culture, knowing how to give and receive information is even more difficult. “Ud. casi no habla español, ¿verdad?” doesn't mean the same thing as the English phrase, “You don't really speak Spanish, right?” I've learned to accept that and not be offended when someone questions my ability to speak Spanish after we've been talking for half an hour. On the other hand, I still feel like I'm being yelled at if I receive a text message in all capital letters. I know I shouldn't, but I also know that my mom trying to make my plans doesn't mean she thinks I'm incompetent and that is still the most common source of our arguments.

One of my hopes is that Peace Corps service is making me a better, more aware and more intentional communicator.

26 July 2011

Free Time

I try to stay busy. During any given week I work with my counterparts, teach computer classes and entrepreneurship, visit the businesses I advise, work on my sexual health study or my basic grain market project, and spend time hanging out in the park with kids in my community. When all my projects are written out on paper, it would seem that I do a pretty good job of staying busy. Maybe, if I lived somewhere else, that would be true. When you take into account, however, that over the last few weeks the closest I've come to having a normal class was running into a bunch of my students sitting on the steps of the gazebo in the park and talking to them about fixed and variable costs for ten minutes, or that it routinely takes a month to get a meeting (read: find the person you are looking for actually occupying their office, even after you've fixed a time to get together) and in that meeting you're as likely to be sent off on a four hour trip to meet with someone else as to have your simple question answered, things look a little different.

Now, free time is both the boon and bane of the Peace Corps existence. It can recharge your week or leave you feeling unproductive, lonely and far from home. By far my favorite place to while away the hours is my hammock. I purchased my hammock from a volunteer who was finishing his Peace Corps service just a few weeks before swore in and moved north. It is made of denim and, while it is occasionally a bit warm, distinguishes itself by its durability, lack of pressure points (or line leaving strings), and ability to keep mosquitoes from biting me from behind. It is also large enough that, when temperatures are a bit cooler or it is raining, I can pull up the sides and wrap myself into a cocoon. My hammock is the linchpin of my free time. When I am traveling or working and become tired or frustrated the thought that crosses my mind is almost always, “I can't wait to be back in my hammock.” In the scene below, everything is organized for easy access from my hammock.
 1) My guitar is the newest member of the free-time team. She was a birthday present to myself and, being from the department of Esteli, I think of her as the norteña girl everyone keeps trying to hook me up with. She is slightly less polished and professional looking than her cousins from Masaya (down south), but that's what I love about her. It should be noted that I'm not much of a guitar player, but that is exactly why Veera (that's her name) is such a great part of the team. Learning the guitar is something I can work on every day and listen to myself improve. Besides the calming quality of music, slow progress does wonders for my emotional state.

2) Six years ago I was sitting at my desk in what we called the fishbowl, 141 Fitzhugh, my first-year college dorm. It was called the fishbowl because its only window opened out to a walkway from which passersby could peer into our room. I assume it was a weekend because everyone was out except for my roommate and I, who were both hard at work. Finally, needing a break, we wandered up to an on-grounds convenience store called Cross-roads where I purchased my first cup of coffee. In the years since, coffee has come to be my favorite time passing aid, facilitating both countless hours of conversation and quiet reflection. Here in Nicaragua it has been no different. If I am puzzling through the details of life here in Jícaro or escaping into the memory of adventures past, there is usually a cup of coffee to the right of my hammock. (Hat-tip to both Chaka Market-Bridge and Rise Up Coffee, check them out!).

3) My free time is usually accompanied by a stack of books. I like to keep my options open. In the year I spent at home prior to coming to Nicaragua, I did a pretty good job of cluttering up my mom's kitchen table with an assortment of journals and reading material. Now my books usually occupy a plastic chair within and easy arm's reach of my favorite spot. The lineup changes from time to time, sometimes including my computer or a new magazine, but the basics are about the same. (Everything pictured here is highly recommended.)

The key to making free time a positive force in my Peace Corps life has been aimless purpose. The idea of killing time has never done me any good. I feel guilty about killing time. I prefer to use my free time for some purpose, however trivial or oft-changing that purpose may be. When I practice guitar I'm learning something. Having a cup of coffee in my hand helps me organize my thoughts into something coherent and my stack of books provides new inputs to be organized. But as I said before, it hinges on the hammock, on having a place where aimless purpose can be relaxing and rejuvenating regardless of what is going on in the wider world.

20 June 2011

The Return of Green

After months of oppression under thick layers of dust and sun-baked soil, the green world of living things has once again sprung forth in the hills of Nueva Segovia. Dull gray fields, burned in April by the incessant sun (and some misguided/lazy farmers) happily took in the May rains and turned black under ox-drawn plows. Now they are bursting forth in slightly crooked, green rows of beans and corn. The nature is, of course, far ahead of the farmers' fields. The untended hillsides and valleys are already in full “winter” glory. It happened so fast that it was almost impossible to believe that a few weeks before there was nothing— absolutely nothing— green and growing to be found. Startling. Magical, but starling.

I have been doing my best to take advantage of this seasonal glut of growth potential to get my garden going. So far I've had only marginal success. For a long time I was surprised at how few Nicaraguans had home gardens. Given the length of the growing season and the fertile soil, I figured the productive potential would be pretty high. You could also stagger your planting in order to extend the period in which fresh produce was available. Unfortunately the same sun that nourishes most growing things seems to have a vendetta against seedlings; the rain that showers plants with love doesn't know when to stop and drowns the objects of its affection; and as those two forces battle for supremacy they create an ideal environment for molds, fungus and all sorts of leaf eating bugs. Only my cucumbers and my beans, plants that grow fast and are resilient to losing a few of their leaves, survive from my first round of planting (well, and one severely stunted swiss chard plant).

Far from being discouraged, I've sought some Ag volunteer advice and reorganized my efforts. I've planted some more beans and cucumbers, a concession to what grows well. My sitemate and I call beans “Nicaraguan ivy” and I plan to make a tunnel-like trellis for them to climb. For the more difficult items I've moved away from planting directly in my garden. I started my eggplant seeds in Coke bottles, my lettuce in old water bottles, and my kale and swiss chard in tubes made by from rolled up paper. My herbs (oregano, mint, basil, and thyme) are also in bottle planters, though they'll stay there for the duration. The green, leafy vegetables are the most difficult because of how susceptible they are to molds and hungry pests. That could be why they are not available in markets here... and also why I'm so anxious to get my own crop growing. I'm armed with soapy-water, flour, and various other non-chemical weapons for the battle ahead.

Some days I consider just growing interesting-looking weeds. Aside from the leafy greens I'm not overly excited about anything I've planted. I do, however, like playing in the dirt and watching things grow.

19 May 2011

Last year at this time I was... in Nicaragua.

For the last year I have been wandering through life in Nicaragua. In a speech I gave at the end of training, I said:

During these twelve weeks we have shared much. We have tried new food. We have learned new words and new skills, both for life and for our work. But not for a single moment did we learn, not for a single moment did we struggle, succeed, fail, or live— alone. There was always support, community, and assistance.

Well those twelve weeks have stretched into a year and I feel it is only right take this time to acknowledge some of that support. My two host families— first in Nandasmo and then in Jicaro— obviously deserve a big thank-you. The same can be said of my PCV friends, from Rio San Juan to Jinotega and from Chinandega out to the RAAS and of all my Nicaraguan friends here in site. My real family back in the states has been wonderful as well. My Dad and brothers came to visit (and Roopa!). My Mom and Grandma fight over sending me things in the mail. And everyone gets together once a week to SKYPE with me. I appreciate it all greatly, just as I appreciate everyone's letters and emails, however trivial the subject matter!

I would also like to call special attention to one companion who has been with me through all my time in Nicaragua: the perro zompopo. Now, zompopops are leaf-cutter ants (See Roopa's post from a few months ago) and perro means dog, but thankfully these guys are not dog-sized leaf-cutter ants... or worse, flying ants... I hate those guys. No, they're geckos (or some other small lizard)!

I remember lying awake one of my first nights in Nicaragua trying to find the source of the strange chirping sound I was hearing. I could also tell a million stories of little lizards jumping off the roof onto my shoulder (or head) just to say hi and make sure I was awake. They're so thoughtful. I love to watch them zip around and chase bugs. For awhile there was a small one living on the water shut-off valve in my yard. I named him Humberto. 

Yesterday this little guy fell into my patio while I was in my hammock and went nuts chasing some little red ants. So thank you perro zompopos for keeping me company and eating things that bite me. You are wonderful listeners, even if you have rather short attention spans. I look forward to another year of friendship and adventure!

And the same to all of you. Thanks for taking this journey with me!

03 May 2011


 I am constantly amazed at the speed and skill with which adobe houses, quite literally, rise out of the ground. While I have spent the last few months bemoaning the heat and the dust, I have really enjoyed watching the wave of construction that has swept across my little mountain municipality during the months of March and April.

Like most things (if not everything) building with adobe can be well done or poorly done. When it is well done the result is both beautiful and durable. It feels more like the reshaping of a piece of land than anything else. A foundation is dug out and squared off, using mostly digging bars to chop through the sun-baked dirt. That same dirt, or dirt from nearby, is then mixed with water (and sometimes a bit of grass) and pressed into molds to form blocks, which are once more baked by the sun. 

After they are dry, the adobe blocks are laid and cemented together with more mud to become a house, usually by the very people who own the land, made the bricks, and are going to live in the house. Later, the walls will be sealed with a layer of cement or “tierra blanca” (a special kind of dirt), and painted with brilliant colors. Once the process gets going it moves very quickly. A piece of land can be empty one week, the next week all the walls of a house are up, and the following week the house has a roof.

04 April 2011

Puro Polvo

 April is the hottest month of the year in Nicaragua. The sun is relentless, rising early and thoroughly baking everything it touches. Some nights my thermometer is still pushing 90 degrees at 1:00 am, and by noon I have to use a potholder to move a frying pan from the drying rack to the stove because the metal is too hot to touch. The rains have long since disappeared and will not come back to bring relief until sometime in May. In the river only a web of little channels still flow and hills that were once luscious and green are now dull and gray. Everyone seems to be resigned to the heat and the lack of water, but the straw that really makes the camel groan and say, “Really? Anything else you'd like to add?” is the dust.

To be fair, the dust that is now the source of everyone's complaints will, in three months, become the mud that is the source of everyone's complaints. Maybe it is just a trouble-maker in general, the younger brother of the dirt that makes crops grow and is molded into adobe bricks and built into houses. Regardless, It is on everyone's nerves. It is in their house. It cover's their clothes as they dry on barbed-wire fences and turns nicely shined shoes fuzzy looking slippers. When they walk along the road it is in their eyes and their mouths. Quite frankly it simply has no respect for personal space and it is EVERYWHERE.

In addition to getting into every chink and every crack of every house, the dust works hard to hold onto its place in the forefront of every mind. Each morning, just before dawn, it lifts in clouds so that as the sun rises it casts an ominous red glow out across the Segovian hills. Similarly, every evening the last rays of light are orange jets diffused across millions of particles hanging in the air, final reminder of what tomorrow will bring. That part is actually kind of cool...

(Postscript: The mountains of Nueva Segovia are a comparatively cool region within Nicaragua. I take this time to express my sympathy and offer my hammock to any poor volunteer who finds his/herself in the blast-furnace that is Managua, Chinandega, or the RAAS. -JGM)

12 March 2011

La Casita

March marks the third month since I moved out on my own. Living all alone took a little getting used to, but now my home is really home. I'm always happy to get back at the end of a long day at school. When I'm off traveling, sitting on yet another bus, it is my little casita, with my hammock, my tiny kitchen, and my little sphere of personal space that I can't wait to return to. Some days I may go a little overboard and spend too much time there, but in general it has been a great addition to my life here in Nueva Segovia.

It may not be the most stereotypical Peace Corps house of all time— I have tile floors, electricity, and running water (it is cold, but still, it moves), and a real toilet— but learning to enjoy my house and its lack of adversity has been a big step in my Nicaraguan experience. While suffering and overcoming a new kind of living standard were always a possibility, they were never meant to be the reason for, or the defining characteristic of my Peace Corps experience. I came to live, learn, and work. Now I have a wonderful place to relax and reflect at the end of the day, which is a great advantage in achieving those goals. As Peace Corps volunteers, we love to trade war stories, “We haven't had power for a week and the water started running again yesterday but it is coming out orange.” “They canceled all my classes, then the bus broke down, then I got stung by a scorpion, then I came home to my dinner of rice and beans and the dogs were barking so I couldn't go to sleep.” “There's a tarantula in my shoe, again!” All that stuff happens, and it is a part of our life, but there is a tendency to let it start to define our life, to want to one-up the next volunteer and show that your site (or your country) is the toughest or most extreme. I feel that pressure, too, but at the end of the day I know that I didn't come to Nicaragua to prove myself, I came to learn as much as I could and hopefully help some people out along the way. Now I have a sweet little casita to help me achieve those goals.

There's plenty of extra room, so come visit.

Swing on over to my FLICKR page if you want to see some more pictures.

04 March 2011

Guest Posts: Second Edition

This is me.

So what did I liked about Nicaragua? Ok wait, before that, I really like making lists. So here are three lists of three things each about Nicaragua. I know that is not a very big number of things for a list but three is a good number. So is 29. and 11.
  Things I like about Nicaragua:

1. There are a lot of volcanoes. A LOT. I really like volcanoes. They are very, very cone shaped. Not all of them, but many of them are very nice cones, like in the movies. I did not know volcanoes were really like that. And they were everywhere and we saw them all the time and that was awesome.

2. I got to CLIMB a volcano. It wasn't an active volcano, but it used to be. That is so cool. It had a little lake in the middle. I swam in the lake. I SWAM IN A VOLCANO. It was very shallow and the bottom was very mucky and maybe a little gross, but I didn't try too hard to find out what the muck was made of so it was still fun. Oh but it was also cold. Usually I don't like being cold, but this was ok because I WAS IN A VOLCANO. I didn't know it at the time, becuase at the time i didn't know this was a word, but it turns out what i was was TOTALLY STOKED about swimming in a lake in the middle of a volcano. Jonathan said he's been swimming in better craters, but i still like this one best because it was my first.

3. Squishy candies on a bus: we were on a bus going to the beach at jiquillio. It was a nice crowded bus and it was really hot and people were selling things. I didn't know what most of them were, but almost everything was for eating. Except one person who i thought was selling mushrooms becuase I heard her say the word "hongos" which is the Spanish word for mushrooms and one of the few words I know in spanish. only Jonathan said she was actually selling something for curing toe fungus so i guess everything they were selling wasn't for eating. Anyway, one lady was selling bags of little brown squishy things wrapped in plastic and i was very curious about what they were. I looked so curious a lady standing near me bought some and gave one to me. I thought that was very nice but i was not sure what to do with the brown thing becuase it was obviously for eating but also a bit strange looking. but i ate it anyway and it was a brown squishy candy and it was AWESOME. I do not know what it is called but if i could have i would have bought lots to bring home with me. Maybe Jonathan can tell you what they're called. Also tell me please.

Ok there were lots of other things i liked in Nicaragua, but I said I would only have three things in my list and that's three. But some other things I liked in Nicaragua were breakfast, walking on the beach, walking up the hill in El Tisey, hammocks, monkeys, and watching Hot Fuzz. In case you haven't seen it, it is a very good movie. There are probably other things I liked but those are the important ones. Also this is not about why I liked Nicaragua but about why i like Jonathan and that is because he gave me "Avatar: the last airbender" on DVD for Christmas in 2009 and it was awesome. If you don't feel like watching Hot Fuzz you should watch Avatar. The Nickelodeon version, not the other one, and not the one with the blue people.

Things I didn't like:

There are not too many of these but I will try to list them anyway:
1. I bought a little rooster whistle in the market in Granada and i wrapped it in a sock so it wouldn't break but when i brought it home it was broken. But that isn't Nicaragua's fault. It was probably my sock. And it isn't Jonathan's fault because he wasn't even there when I bought it.

2. Lack of coconuts. Nicaragua has the Caribbean sea on one side and the pacific ocean on the other, and we were always really close to the pacific ocean but there were never enough coconuts. I really wanted coconuts and was sad that I did not see them for many many days. I saw many coconut trees but no coconuts for eating. It was sad and strange. Then I made Tim ask someone at a store if they had coconuts and they laughed at him, and i thought that was funny and I was less sad.

3. I actually can't think of a third thing.

Things that surprised me about Nicaragua:

1. I found out that Lago de Nicaragua has sharks in it. I was surprised because I did not know that there were lake sharks. I never saw any sharks in the lake, but i still think they are awesome. I will tell you why. They are bull sharks, or Carcharhinus leucas, which are found all over the world and will often swim from the ocean to fresh water rivers, stay a while, then head back. The lake nicaragua sharks are even cooler than other bull sharks. First scientists thought they were a separate species of shark that was endemic to the lake and had gotten stuck there during the pleistocene. Then they realized they were just bull sharks, and they were kind of bummed that they weren't a brand new species. But THEN they realized that they weren't just stuck in the lake. They tagged a whole bunch of bull sharks that were hanging out near river mouths in the Carribean in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and a few of them showed up in the lake. The Lake Nicaragua sharks were swimming all the way up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean Sea! Pull up a map and think about that for a second. And they didn't even figure all of this out until the 1970s. That's not even the cool part. THIS is the cool part: "Bull Sharks were jumping the rapids, much like salmon, to enter the lake". [http://www.jstor.org/pss/1442846] Jumping. Like. Salmon. SHARKS. now that is cool. and I didn't get to see that this time but I think Jonathan should go check it out.

2. There are a lot of Peace Corps people in nicaragua. Sometimes I saw the same people multiple times.

3. I saw Jonathan reading Twilight. I was surprised.

11 February 2011

Oportunidades (Opportunities)

 This past weekend I had the opportunity to help facilitate Peace Corps Nicaragua's first cross-sectoral youth leadership camp. The event saw nearly a hundred youth from all corners of the country converge on a small retreat center in the mountains of Jinotega and spend three days attending educational sessions, playing sports, and getting to know a new group of friends they may have otherwise never met. Other than a few transportation headaches (though no more than can be expected getting 100 kids from around Nicaragua to and from a camp in the middle of the mountains), things went remarkably smoothly. A wonderful job was done by the camp staff and by the Volunteers who served as counselors and session facilitators (giving sessions on such topics as leadership, non-violent communication, diversity and stereotypes, nutrition, sexual health, self-esteem and positive attitude, behavioral change, creativity, community banking, job preparation, and time/money management). The kids were also wonderful— participative, respectful, friendly and as well behaved as you can expect a group of a hundred teenagers to be. A spontaneous walk-off did erupt between the two boys dorms about an hour after they were supposed to be asleep... but we all know how easily those things pop up.

I really hope the kids absorbed some of the information we threw at them during the retreat. Well, I should rephrase that. It would make me really happy if the kids absorbed some of the information we threw at them during the retreat. Truthfully, however, the sessions themselves were probably not the best opportunity we offered them. Many of the attendees had never been more than a few hours from home. Most of them had never traveled alone or spent the night in their department capital (most of our kids traveled with a local PCV to their department capital the night before the camp so they could arrive on time). Few of them had more than a handful of friends from other departments. Now, here they were, eight hours from home, no parents, surrounded by a group of strangers from places they had probably never heard of, learning to make decisions, learning to make friends, to share, to listen and to think for themselves. That type of experience is much more likely to stick than anything we said or tried to teach, which is good, because it is much more important.

23 January 2011

Viajar (to travel)

Traveling in Nicaragua is an interesting experience. Whether your rent a car and risk being stopped by the police, paying a few “taxes” or tickets, and navigating a confusing mess of roads or decide to brave the bus and taxi network, there are sure to be surprises. I recently had my first opportunity to do a bit of non work-related traveling. Over Christmas, my dad, brothers, and my brother's girlfriend came to visit me. Wanting them to have the most authentic experience possible, to see some interesting things but to get a bit of an idea of what my life here looks like, I decided we would travel exclusively via buses and taxis.
All in all, the decision worked out wonderfully. More often than not, our timing was usually good and we avoided waiting around for buses to show up. We only had to stand up for one or two trips. Only one person was pick-pocketed, and he wasn't carrying anything of use in that wallet. Our travels took us down south to climb volcanoes on the island of Ometepe and up north to lounge on nearly deserted beaches in Chinandega. The trip gave me a good opportunity to compare and contrast life in my site with life in some other parts of Nicaragua. Those reflections will probably come out in my posts over the next few months. At the moment, however, I am going to give my visitors a chance to express their thought about Nicaragua in a series of guest posts.

Enjoy the new perspective! Then come visit and contribute your own to the discussion!

(Mark Malacarne)

I am not entirely sure how I want to describe my trip to Nicaragua. With the stress of finals and being done at Lock Haven, it felt like before I even realized what was happening I was sitting in the airport ready for another adventure.  I hadn't even had to time to put
together expectations for what I was about to experience.  I was thrust into a world with rice and beans, cold showers, loud dogs, louder chickens, bamboo huts, crowded buses, littering, poverty,
undrinkable water, dirt floors, no cell phones (for me anyway), mediocre beer, and a language that, although I studied it for years, couldn't speak and barely understand.  But while these sound intimidating on paper, I wouldn't change one thing about it.  I would struggle to recollect a time that I felt more relaxed, and more
connected to nature.  It's funny what a perfect sunset, the beach and close family can do to your perspective.

There I was. Here I am
(John Malacarne)

The journey, an experience of a lifetime – the chance to be where not many people I know have ever been; the chance to be with my sons for an extended period of time; what more could a fellow ask for?

Well, I got a lot more than I expected. I did go where not many people have ever been. When I arrived in Nicaragua, I couldn’t have been more shocked or unsettled. The first streets I saw were littered with garbage, crowded with people, cabs, and buses. The journey in those crowded buses was, at first, a little unnerving. The places we observed on our travels were wooden, bamboo, block, and plank shacks. Wow, how bad these people had it!
- There I was, Here I am-
It took some time, but things changed - not the conditions or the people – the way I saw them. I began to realize I was looking through very clouded eyes. The people had all they needed; the sea, from which most received their living, beautiful skies, fantastic sunsets, warm water, shelter, and the opportunity to live in nature at almost all times. After I realized that, in many ways, these people whom I felt sorry for were living the dream of many people, I relaxed and shared in the beauty of God’s Kingdom of Nicaragua.

There I was – the Dad taking his boys on an adventure to a foreign land. They would lean on me as they have their mother and I since they were born – me, the hero, the fun one. What was I thinking?!

Here I am – Mark drove me to and from the airport. He was much more confident in finding our way through airports than I ever could be. Jonathan was waiting for us as soon as we disembarked from our plane. Tim had been traveling alone from the US and around Nicaragua. Tim and Jonathan handled all money transactions and travel during our adventure (as well as communications). Jonathan would be stopped on the streets of a village to shake hand and catch up with community members, or to introduce us to people at whom we could just smile and who smiled back at us. Going up in the hills to help a farmer friend of his milk cows and seeing the feelings these people had for him was heart melting. My boys are not little anymore – they are men each on a path to help others. Glory to God. Oh, I did get to see my little boys – they still play on the beach and tease each other as they have always done. One time, as they were walking down the beach side by side, I saw the three little guys who yesterday were walking on a beach in N.J.
Well, maybe it was the sunset reflecting off the water, or salt mist in my eyes, or maybe just maybe it was a film of tears at the pride I felt toward the three.

Did I enjoy the adventure – were there new revelations? Naw