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La Extraccionista

Two days ago when I got a message from Robyn,  a volunteer in a nearby community, that she needed translators for a visiting medical brigade, it felt like the right thing to do and I knew it’d help shake me out of my recent, single-minded pursuit to complete the 242-page English manual that I’ve been working on for months. Like I said, if ever in doubt about your priorities and place in the world, take a day and give it to someone else. Who knows what new perspective you’ll be granted. In a stroke of genius (patting myself on the back with one hand as I type), it occurred to me to accept what will ever be known as “the medical translation challenge” as long as I could bring an advanced English student to “job shadow.” Robyn thought it was a great idea and we even started brainstorming how we could match future brigades with bright, young Nica English speakers to give them work experience and English practice in a professional setting. Like any great idea, we’ll see where it goes. Anyway, I called Victor, English teacher extraordinaire and my beloved teaching counterpart. He recommended I take 17-year-old Hamilton, an advanced level student from Prime English Center who graduated last year, and so I did.

And now to the most fascinating (and exhausting) day I’ve had in a long, long time. Hamilton and I arrived at Hotel Café, the nicest hotel in Jinotega, at 6:45AM where I met Lou, the dentist; Max, the surgeon/anesthesiologist; Mark (Max’s twin), also a surgeon; and Gary, who is Max’s son, Lou’s son-in-law, and a jack-of-all-trades. The twin doctors were doing surgeries for hernias, gall bladders, and “lumps and bumps.” The hospital San Rafael del Norte recently acquired one of those fancy laparoscopic units that allowed doctors to perform “closed” surgeries instead of the far more evasive, dangerous, and time-intensive “open” surgeries of old, although they did a few of those, too, when circumstances called for it. The health clinic down the street where Lou the Dentist was working had just received one of 20 dental chair units distributed throughout the country by the government. It’s just like the chair I’ve sat in all my life during dental visits with slightly less functionality because some parts were installed incorrectly. More about that later . . .

After “doing rounds” with the doctors at the hospital where I visited small rooms of 8 to 10 patients and learned what they had done or needed to have done—just a tad less glamorous then the scenes of “Grey’s Anatomy”—we parted ways with Max, Mark, and Gary, and made our way to the clinic where the Lou had been working all week. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you there was a lot of vocabulary that Hamilton and I had to learn but that’s life. You don’t get to be 100% prepared for all of the situations you’re thrown into—or in our case, volunteer to be thrown into. Anyway, all of that “translator prep” was a great learning experience for Hamilton, and Lou was so kind to include him in everything.

We worked in a small room with a dental chair, a large desk, a sink, a red plastic lawn chair (like I have in my living room) and a counter for materials. Additionally, there was a chair at the desk, a chair in the corner, a chair for Lou, and a chair for me. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there were also a minimum of eight people in the room at all times:  two dentists (one Nica, one American), two Nica teens who functioned as secretaries/assistants to the Nica doctor, myself, and Hamilton—oh, and the two patients.

Let’s discuss this two dentists detail:  Lou was using the chair because he was doing fillings and intensive cleanings. Doctora Myrna was doing tooth extractions—it’s all she’d been doing for about 16 years. Because regular dental services (the kind we know) had not been available for, well, over 15 years, people lived with whatever problems they had until the tooth was so far gone that it had to be extracted. Doctora Myrna, expert in extraction and henceforth known only by the name, La Extraccionista (The Extractionist), saw people of all ages, comforted them with kind and gentle words, injected them with the going painkiller, and then yanked their teeth out as they sat with their necks uncomfortably crinkled against the wall yet supported by the small sink. A trash can was placed nearby for spitting. She extracted at least 20 teeth, occasionally displaying the tooth to all present company if the roots were especially large or if the tooth was terribly decayed. There were some tears, some moaning, and in the end some hugging—by folks who’d been in such great discomfort. Some people came with shiny, white front teeth but had molars that had to go. Others came with three, maybe four teeth and left with one or two. In the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I’m going to say ‘bout that.”

On a related topic—stop reading, get up and go brush your teeth, and then floss—twice. Please do it now. I’ll wait. . . .   . . .   . . .  Let me just add that I have never felt more blessed to a) have been born in a developed country b) have had access to dental care (parents with jobs with great dental insurance and c) parents who prioritized oral hygiene and took me to probably a hundred visit to dentists and then orthodontists who gave me the no-cavity, straight, white-toothed smile that I have today. To the extent that Nicas have stopped me mid-sentence to ask how I get my teeth so white. “Oh, it’s just because I’m so tan that my teeth look so white (wink, wink).”

Back to Lou though—he said the first thing was always to ask the patient what was bothering him/her. That seemed simple enough. Then he said, “If they’ve got a lot of pain and are really sensitive to hot and cold that probably means they’ll need a root canal but we don’t have the equipment to do that right now—maybe in October on the next tour.” My job then was to tell the people they needed a service the Lou couldn’t provide and then ask them if they had a smaller problem that he could fix such as a tooth that didn’t hurt quite as badly. As gifted a dentist and nice of a person as he was, I could tell that Lou felt helpless in a lot of ways because he could see the problems and see where they were headed (to La Extraccionista) but he couldn’t do anything about it. Of course, the conversations got technical—the patient had the shell of the tooth but nothing inside and so Lou made me a great drawing (See video to follow—tooth extraction to toe-stomping ranchera music. Just kidding) and we labeled it and used it to give patients a better idea what was happening. On the day, Lou saw about 10 patients and did or replaced fillings for each of them. In a couple of cases, he did just a cleaning but by hand as the suction unit did NOT suck nor did the water shoot out fast enough to knock off the 15 years of built-up tartar. Go ahead, you can go brush again if you’d like.

Ultimately, I put Hamilton in the chair by Lou. Hamilton had no trouble explaining to patients what Lou wanted once he understood what Lou was saying. To non-native speakers, each of us has a different accent. In my line of work, I’ve naturally started speaking slowly and more simply just like on public radio’s “Voice of America”—a radio program that offers audio files and written transcripts using “Special English” or what they’ve deemed to be the most commonly used and therefore more important “word bank” for English language learners. Lou, for his part, had some trouble understanding Hamilton’s accent in English and so my job at that point became serving as translator between Lou and Hamilton who were both speaking English. All things said, it was a wonderful learning experience for Hamilton, and obviously for me, too.

We worked from 8:30am to 1:30pm and again from 2:30 to 6:30pm. When we got back to the hospital around 6:45pm, the doctors were still in surgery. Buses had long stopped running to Jinotega plus we felt compelled to stick with the team, so we waited. We finally got home at 9PM having as graciously as possible turned down repeated dinner invites from Max and Mark. I was simply exhausted. They must have been going on pure adrenaline having performed surgeries from sun up to sun down for a solid week. It was so fascinating to work with these dedicated doctors and see exactly what happens when American medical brigades visit developing countries. Certainly, one day can’t reveal the big picture, but the glimpse I got was memorable, nauseating, and above all inspiring.

I tell you, it’s almost impossible to give something to another person and get nothing in return. Inevitably, I end up thinking that I got so much more than I gave. It’s just what Gandhi said (and I’ve mentioned in my emails before), “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Not Better or Worse

Yesterday I physically grabbed hold of a chunky, dirty street kid who was chucking rocks over the fence at some shrieking school kids. He’d be doing it for awhile, in fact, as I approached I watched him—as did about 10 Nicaraguans who were nearby selling vegetables or pirated DVDs or just walking by. At first I asked him to stop, then I told him to stop, then I grabbed his cocked-ready-to-throw arm and he still let one loose. Now the moment that the Nicas in the vicinity saw that I was having trouble, they got involved. They started yelling at the kid and ultimately I think a parent or familiar member came to get him from the other end of the block where they sat selling something or other. Haven’t figured out—culturally-speaking—why they’d intervene for me but not on behalf of the school kids inside the fence getting shelled by fist-sized rocks?

This was all moments before I met a teacher for coffee and last minute agenda planning for this morning’s monthly training. We have this new system that allows for “intercapacitacion”—training done by local English teachers for local English teachers—every other month. I was asked to present this month at the first exchange, let’s call it, on the topics of Speaking and Technology—supposedly two areas that teachers had previously identified as difficult. Of course, during the opening remarks to all teachers of the municipality, the superintendent called attention to the fact that Nicas were supporting Nicas and no outside experts had been called in to give trainings. Her remarks gave me a jumping off point as I started the first session for twenty English teachers. I thanked them for asking me to participate and emphasized that I was no expert and hopefully no one saw me as an outsider but rather another teacher and a colleague. I also emphasized my hope that I stood before them as a mere facilitator of conversation and not a presenter before an audience. And with that our workshop day got underway and I do feel it was quite successful. You’d be surprised how timid teachers can be about sharing ideas—not because they don’t have any but because they are worried about being criticized or that perhaps someone will think they are being a know-it-all. And to that I say (and have said to them many a time), there is no right or wrong in teaching, there is only successful, more successful, and less successful. Everything we do falls somewhere on the spectrum.

My counterpart, Victor, is a fabulous example of a gifted teacher who will not stand in front of a group to share his ideas. From what I understand, he’s had a lot of bad experiences with colleagues over the years. It’s a sore subject but I’m working on him. For the moment he says he’d be happy to present to the “humble, rural teachers” so we’ll start there, I guess. Anyway, baseball freak that he is, he went running out the high school to get to the baseball game on time. I made time for lunch and met him there in the 3rd inning. Tempted by the stadium food—bags of sliced mango with salt, peanuts, ice cream, syrupy ice cones in a cup, potato chips with vinegar, hot dogs, friend donuts with honey, beer, and soda—I finally settled on some cinnamon gum that went stale in ten minutes. Poor choice, however low calorie.

A wiry, yellow dog took to the field in the 6th inning and simply would not leave. The players on defense took turns throwing their gloves at him. The team in the dugout jumped around and tried to scare him. It went on for awhile until he ran into deep left and the pitcher and umpires ignored him to get through the current batter. Finally he ran off amidst laughter. Today’s game featured las Brumas (The Mists) and Los Toros (The Bulls) from Chontales. One player from the Toros had been accused of raping a minor. When he came to bat the Jinotegan fans called him a name that meant pedophile, more or less. It’s not in my dictionary but Victor explained it to me. The Toros ended up winning by run-rule in the 7th and the local fans left unsatisfied.

I spied a little girl, maybe 4 years old, walking along as the crowd flowed out of the stadium. She wasn’t holding anybody’s hand but seemed to know where she was headed. Once we got outside, I saw her stop and burst into tears upon realizing her mom wasn’t around. I spoke to her first and then a couple ladies grilling pork outside the stadium took interest. Through the snot and tears we managed to get her mother’s name and then after 10 minutes or so the mother came out of the stadium—both worried and angry. During the wait, the ladies and I made small talk—they were cooking pork and potato patties stuffed with shredded beef and rice. Again, I was tempted but I have some personal guidelines for eating “fritanga” or street food. You have to ask yourself how long it’s been there and how many flies might have landed on it. It also helps to observe the hands of the cook. Right now, given that we’re in the dry season and the lady was cooking on the side of the busiest road in the city, I decided against the road-grimed, stuffed potato—delicious as it looked (no lie).

The moral of today’s story—life goes on here in Jinotega. It’s not better or worse—it’s just different. I hope I’ll always remember that notion when traveling, living abroad (again), and even when working with different kinds of people. There’s no such thing as better or worse; there’s just difference.

I Sit Corrected

Please allow me a couple of corrections—if there is anything I mean to be as I write about Nicaragua and Peace Corps, it’s accurate. There are two recent things I’ve said that I want to correct:

1) We are not entering the rainy season—we’re leaving it and beginning roughly four months of summer. I think I wrote that on a rainy day without really thinking. Truly, Jinotega has more months of rain; let’s say a total of eight or nine versus the rest of the country which receives six or less. I’m told it should start raining again in May. For now, we’ve got dust and a hot daytime sun to dry my clothes. Sunset brings cooler temps and the morning, well, it’s usually breezy and cool. It’s my favorite timeJ Overall, we rarely drop below 65°F.

2) I quoted from something I’d written two years ago and in that quote I used a term that I no longer like nor really believe in:  third world country. Having never been to Africa, I don’t know how it compares but across the board I suggest the term “developing world,” instead of “third world” because just like my Spanish I have to believe “we’re” always getting better and moving forward. And what’s different isn’t necessarily worse or backwards or behind. Certainly, there are examples of crushing poverty and disease as well as complex issues of food security. Still, third world says “behind” to me—behind the first world and the second world—wherever that is—so forgive me that phrase and please slide “developing world” in there instead.

Thanks.

Guac

Sitting down with a bowl of chopped tomato, onion, and avocado sprinkled with salt and a splash of lime juice. Oh, I’ve also got two freshly toasted tortillas—my fourth and fifth of the day. I had this same snack at mid-day minus the cold Victoria Clasica cerveza. The avocado cost me 50 cents which is a bit high but I made up for it by buying not four tomatoes for 50 cents but four pounds of tomatoes for 50 cents. What a deal! Nothing like a dynamite, organic, locally-grown-right-down-to-the-corn-in-the-tortillas kind of snack for, what, 30 cents? I’ll never get over the availability of awesome, home-grown veggies on every corner in Nicaragua or at least in the parts where I’ve lived.  It’s a year-round farmer’s market!

Today’s news headline in La Prensa caught my eye so I’ve got a newspaper to read until Ugly Betty comes on:  “Nicaragua Asilaría a los Gadafi” (Nicaragua Would Give Asylum to the Gadafis). I can’t believe it. It was shocking enough last week when I realized I was living in one of two countries in the world whose presidents were supporting Gadafi and had even called him on the phone to pledge support. In reading the article, I was relieved to see that a number of other Nicas had spoken out against this possibility saying that it would be a black day in history. I don’t feel at liberty to speak freely even in my emails about anything of a political nature. One of my counterparts occasionally mentions something political but always in English and like a mom talking about ice cream in front of her kids, “Boy, I could sure use some I-C-E- C-R-E-A-M but I don’t want little Jimmy eating that so close to suppertime.” If you haven’t ever, I invite you to read about our upcoming elections (November 2011). They’re gonna make international news and probably for awhile—that much I can promise. 

Yesterday in Managua, the president of the Nicaraguan English Teachers Association and I presented to the committee in order to receive funding support for a grant that will provide a teaching activities manual and related training to 363 teachers in 14 municipalities during the month of May. I think I mentioned that I’m coordinating the efforts of the 14 volunteers involved and will be receiving the grant money (approximately U.S. $6,000) into my bank account to manage and disperse accordingly. I’ll keep you posted—it’s a wonderful project with far-reaching benefits.

That’s all my good news for today. Running in a 10K tomorrow morning—half the distance between Jinotega and San Rafael del Norte. You may recall I ran the whole distance—a half marathon—in 2009 and afterwards I said this: “What I’m learning about myself now are some things I guess I already knew. I can live in the third world country. I can sweep and clean my happy little home. I can hand wash my clothes. I can make my own food or learn to make Nica food. What I cannot do is travel great distances on the buses, unless it’s a direct route:  one bus for many hours, in which, I’ll probably find a decent seat and be able to relax a bit.” It appears that the travel killed me more than the race and this year, with the travel element removed from the situation, should be a great time.

Skimming over my old blog entries and emails, I realize I used to write more often and more vividly. When I think about why that is I guess I’d have to say that while I’m still delighted, affected, and challenged by so many parts of life in Nicaragua, this is where I live and this is what I do. It doesn’t occur to me to draw attention to the “difference” or the “foreign-ness” because I don’t see it so clearly anymore. I think that’s a good thing.

The Art of Coming Home

Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to stop, reflect, and report but I’m making myself do it now and asking you to take five minutes to do the same. I’d really like to know how you are—really. Just this week I picked up a book in the Peace Corps library called The Art of Coming Home, because at some moment this year, I do expect to “come home” and I do expect it to be something of a shock. Anyway, the book makes mention of an attitude many expatriates have—that they are the only ones leading interesting lives. I just want to be clear; I am not at all of that opinion. No matter where we live or what we do, our successes, challenges, and daily routines deserve equal air-time which is to say they’re important. I wanna know.

My story is this:  I facilitated 8 hours of “Coping with Stress” discussions with two new trainee groups this week. It’s a full day’s work and that’s not a comment about the session. We literally meet in the office around 8AM to get materials ready, leave at 9AM, drive an hour to another department (either Masaya or Carazo,), do two sessions in the morning, get lunch somewhere, and do two more sessions in the afternoon—each session with five or six trainees, and get back to Managua around 5PM, traffic permitting. Studies do show that having some idea of what’s ahead reduces stress so as facilitators we try to present a realistic picture of volunteer service. I assure them that they’ll learn Spanish because, hey, I did and you can accomplish things you are motivated to accomplish. We also help them understand the medical resources at their disposal as well as volunteer committees and the online tools that they have at their disposal throughout their two years of service.

I’m also happy to report that the small grant proposal I was working on is in! What I pulled together over the last month was 107 pages of proposal, budgets, printing bids, trainings plans, contracts, and participant sign-up lists. I delegated some parts, practiced teamwork, and ultimately “guided” 14 other volunteers through the process of setting up trainings for teachers in their respective cities/communities and meeting all of Peace Corps and USAID’s deadlines and requirements. The proposal is for a workshop on the adaptation of materials and we’re providing the material: a teacher’s manual that was written specifically for the Nicaraguan classroom in accordance with the recent curriculum transformation set forth by the Ministry of Education. A committee of volunteers wrote the manual which provides exercises, games, readings, grammar, and strategies for grade levels 7 to 11. I participated as little as possible in the writing of the manual such that I could do the design work with a fresh pair of eyes. The manual design is underway but now that the proposal is in, it has moved to pole position on my priority list.

Mobile Matricula

Yesterday I attended a meeting called “The Battle for Sixth Grade” which had as its focus the strategic plan of the departmental ministry to enroll, maintain, and graduate Nicaraguan youth from the sixth grade. As I understood it, the current average level of education in the country is fourth grade which isn’t great when you’re looking for a job in any country. Come 2015 they’ll be fighting the battle for 9th grade—raising the bar little by little until it is feasible to expect for all students to graduate high school.

This year there will be two forms of enrollment—stationary and mobile. Stationary enrollment is when the parents bring the kids to school and sign them up. Mobile enrollment is when teachers, university students, governmental committee members, and other volunteers go door-to-door in both the urban and rural zones to ensure that all students have access a free education which emphasizes values such as ethics, honor, transparency, Christianity, and solidarity. Matriculation will be open from January 31 until March 31—yes, three whole months—for kids to come back to school after working or traveling with their working parents to whatever coffee farm was looking for pickers. Strikes me as especially difficult for the student who starts late (and probably departed early at the end of the last school year) and the teacher who will be receiving new students for the first three months but that is the reality of the situation.

Of course many of the people present from the wide variety of educational organisms working in Jinotega inquired as to how students would be retained and promoted once we’d achieved enrolling them. The plan offered included the following:   improved infrastructure and cleanliness in area schools; first day of school will be “un día festivo” or a holiday/celebration; improved didactic materials although no comment as to whether teachers would be trained to use them; more “counseling” to improve relations between students and their teachers; better and timelier snacks for all students because many only attend for the food which they do not get at home; educational passport documents to allow for easier school transfers if a student should have to transfer; strengthening the network of student monitors/leaders who often have the best insight as to why their classmates don’t attend school; and last but I pray not least, more training for teachers . . . so they’ll know how to identify students with learning disabilities or problems at home. The snack part was discussed at length. I wish more time would have been given to teacher preparation and in-service trainings which I see as key to students’ permanencia y promoción in primary school. I believe a caring, creative, and motivating teacher can make all the difference in the world.

The new school year begins on February 15th—just a few weeks away though before that date arrives I’ve got a small project assistance grant proposal to complete, three workshops (for English teachers) to plan, and a leadership camp to attend and help manage logistics. In my leisure time, I am designing a 200-page teaching manual, rockin’ out to Marc Anthony, and hanging out at Victor’s English center.

Hope the New Year is treating you well. No complaints here except that it’s starting to get hot and I can’t run between the hours of 10AM and 4PM. I leave you with my quote for the week:

“The purpose of the work on making the future is not to decide what should be done tomorrow,
but what should be done today to have a tomorrow. “                                         
-Peter F. Drucker

 

 

La Madrina

Happy New Year friends and family! Hope it was memorable and spent with loved ones. While I did surprise my parents by showing up at the house and staying for 10 days over the Christmas holiday, I was back in Jinotega for New Years and celebrated with Victor and his family. Let’s do the highpoints of both holidays starting with Hillsdale:

 

  • My Mom’s face when she saw me
  • Getting snowed in
  • Working with my sister on a multi-faceted Excel spreadsheet for a  project I’m directing and learning that I’m NOT financially-challenged, as I’ve always thoughtJ
  • Christmas Eve at Grandma’s with my mom’s side of the family
  • Sitting in my parents’ jacuzzi under the full moon and surrounded by snow
  • Beer, wine, cheese, and chocolate croissants in no particular order
  • Doing self-assessing, career development activities from What Color is Your Parachute? with my sister
  • Discovering my unknown interest in leadership styles and emotional intelligence and loading up on resources (articles and books). Ask me about it!
  • A day in Iowa City with two close friends

New Year’s in Jinotega:

  • Becoming a Godmother to Victor’s 4-month-old son, Joshua
  • Teaching the kids to play Bop It!
  •  Watching “Sleepless in Seattle” (in Spanish) with Mayra, Victor’s wife
  • Going to bed at 11pm :)
  • Eating some of my favorite Nica foods (gallo pinto and tajadas)
  • Sharing Grandma’s cookies that I brought back with me from the states

A little more about the “Godmother thing” which came as something of a surprise though in hindsight it’s starting to make more sense. Victor and I became close friends instead of just colleagues. His family has taken me in from the moment of my arrival here in Jinotega. I am invited to all of their celebrations and outings but I think there was one thing in particular that swung the Godmother vote in my favor. When I went to the farm for the pig roast Mayra and I got to talking on the porch while we watched the kids play baseball. I told her that I had offered to help Victor get his son, Brandon, to baseball practice. Victor does so much for so many other kids at his English center and through his counseling work at the high school. He does so much he can’t make the time commitment so that Brandon can be on a baseball team. The only thing I could think to do was help Victor by taking Brandon at least until Victor realizes that he doesn’t have to be everything for everybody. Apparently that struck a chord with Mayra. She’d been telling Victor the same thing—she’s worried that Brandon won’t have any good childhood memories of his father. She said something like, “La luz de la calle es la oscuridad de su casa.” You can understand that in a couple of ways—either that the house is left dark when Victor gives his time and energy to the outside world or that Victor is so bright and energetic outside of the house that when he is home he is “out” and has to recharge.

Mayra also asked about my parents. I told her my dad worked at a factory called John Deere. It wasn’t a glamorous job but he could almost always come to my after-school activities and weekend games. I told her my mom was a teacher and she too attended the vast majority of my extra-curricular activities not to mention the countless practices someone had to take me to before I could drive. Boy, did she love hearing that!

Victor has asked me several times why I came to Nicaragua and why I stayed longer. He knows I could be pursuing opportunities and making more money elsewhere. He asked me when I’ll get back to my life, as if it’s on hold in some way. The thing is Peace Corps is only a great sacrifice if you think you’ve put your life on hold. Otherwise it is a great adventure where you make a lot of your own rules, learn to adapt, study another language, develop a tremendous range of life skills, and broaden your worldview. Ah, this is a good time for a favorite quote I came across in J. Patrick Murphy’s “Theories of Nonprofit and Organizational Leadership” (that’s my Uncle Pat, by the way):

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”     –Gandhi

There’s a lot of truth in that notion but back to my point. In hindsight, it all adds up—my work, my friendship with Victor, that conversation with Mayra, my surprise trip home for Christmas—I know why they asked me to be the Godmother. It’s because I’ve been taught to value family and to help others and it shows. Furthermore, Victor and Mayra share those values.

I never anticipated being a godparent to a little boy living in a developing country. This third year sure is full of surprises.

Do You Know the Way to San José?

Well, I painted my toenails and put on my other dress—I have two—and it’s  a darned good thing I got all done up because for the second time in three years I was seated at the head table handing out diplomas to the graduating class of students in San José de los Remates, Boaco.

When I left Jinotega at 6AM on Thursday morning with my landlady who was heading south to Managua to buy merchandise for her store, I felt anxious. It was my first visit back since August and though San José will always feel like home, going back felt very much like going backwards. It was that feeling and the “fishbowl effect,” i.e., the minor celebrity status that I’d have for the duration of my visit that made me nervous. I’ve never liked being the center of attention and I like it even less now. That said, so much has changed already in my third year and I imagined it would feel good to share that with the people who met me when I couldn’t speak Spanish and when I wasn’t sure if I could last two years in Nicaragua. I was right. It was a blast!

Highlights included seeing and talking to tons of former students; attending the graduation ceremony; lunch with the mayor and the high school teachers; the dance party in the evening after the ceremony; staying with old friends; eating tajadas and fried cheese at La Fogata with Kelvin, Celia, Jorge and Jessica (the new volunteer in San José); making güirilas (new corn tortillas) with Albertina over the wood fire; and catching up with la Profesora Daysi (my tutor).

Riding through the mountains on the old school bus, the good and bad of the last two years flashed before my eyes. It started to sink in—finally—that I did it. I did Peace Corps. Obviously, I’m still a volunteer but I have a television, cable, an indoor toilet, hot water, a sink in my kitchen, and electricity 98% of the time. I ride on an “express bus” (two to three stops total) to Managua and I don’t sweat every day. For a volunteer that is called living large!

I think my favorite moment was when Nelson, a member of the graduating class, upon seeing me in the street said, “Se ve mas gorda que antes.” Literally, “You look fatter than before.”  I replied without hesitation, “Why thank you!”  Because “mas gorda” conveys not only the notion that I'm fatter, which is a compliment, but also that I look more beautiful.

Nothing like a cool breeze, a pot o’ chili, and some Anne Murray hits to call forth the Thanksgiving spirit. Tomorrow I’m hosting 15 other volunteers at my house in Jinotega. It won’t be quite the same as being at Uncle Pat’s in Lincoln Park but we have cable TV and a few bottles of wine so we’ll make do.

I hope to go to Victor’s family’s farm this weekend. He and I could both stand to kick back a bit and roast a pig or something. I don’t so much like to eat the piggy but I can appreciate a celebratory roasting at the end of another school year.

Wanted to share my best moment from last week that took me back to my childhood (whole life really) on the farm:

It was Sunday afternoon and I’d been in a bit of a funk. I drug myself out the door for a jog that would hopefully reset my system. I had just crossed the little river and bounced up the bank when I came across a calf running down the road. Let me tell you, cows don’t just run around for kicks. They aren’t athletic and they don’t care about fitting into a bikini. When you see a cow running it’s because someone or something is chasing it. This I learned during my enchanted childhood on the farm where every so often dad brought home a new pet (calf, sheep, goat, goose, horse, cat, or dog) and my brother and I had to take care of it. Looking back, it was a privilege to have so many animals friends and grow up this way, but when you’re 10-years-old and it’s the dead of winter, making a bottle of warm (powdered) milk for an orphan calf and going down the hill to feed him before school is not very pleasant. But I digress . . .

Sure enough, as I approached the calf I could see a man in a red shirt running up behind him though still a ways away. I stopped about 15 feet from the calf out of instinct. Where I’m from you help people catch their loose animals—it’s just what you do. So I stopped in front of the calf and gave the Red Running Man a “what’s next?” gesture. He gave me the “send him back my way” signal. Ah, right. I knew what he wanted but I also knew from experience that the calf was gonna bolt to the side and try to get past me. I had him stopped just standing there with my arms out to my sides so I opted to wait and let the running man close in from behind with a lasso. The calf zigzagged back and forth and so I was forced to zig and zag, too, to keep him from advancing. Soon, Red Running Man was within lasso range though his first two attempts failed. Finally, he lassoed the calf by the hoof and fell over backwards. While he struggled to get up, I closed in on a rather alarmed calf. Red Running Man recovered fast and reeled in the calf by his left hoof like a big ol’ fish until he got his arms around him and I had hold of the rope noose. He thanked me profusely and I told him it was nothing at all and that I had a calf like that when I was a little girl. We parted ways—both smiling and me feeling like someone had indeed hit my "reset button" and the world was right again.

For me the moral of this story is the unique, revitalizing experience that is possible in all of our human (and animal) interactions. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for all of you and for my family. I’m also thankful for the Nicaragua people who have accepted me, worked side-by side with me, treated me like a neighbor they’ve known for years, and welcomed me like family such that my life is richer than ever imagined. Here’s to you and yours this Thanksgiving Day.

I Kill Your Dog

On Sunday at Victor’s English center I was supposed to guide a discussion during the watching of the movie “Twilight.” We planned to watch in English and use English subtitles. My plan was to stop the movie every so often and ask questions about the plot or ask for predictions about what might happen next. Sadly, the power was out and a handful of Nicaraguan youth will have to wait another seven days before meeting Edward and Bella and the love story that is "Crepuscula" (Twilight).

When I arrived at the center on Sunday the students were studying a reading about getting along with your neighbors. They were learning about friendly versus extreme ways to respond, facing problems instead of avoiding problems, getting to know your neighbors, and vocabulary words such as “deliberately” and “annoy me.” After some pronunciation practice and controlled Q & A, Victor and I introduced a role-play activity:  In groups of three, you have five minutes to create a role play showing how you would handle one of the following scenarios:

1) Your neighbor’s dog barks all night long.
2) Your neighbor has loud parties every night.
3) Your neighbor steals clothes from your patio.

Eglis, Fatima, and Gloria selected scenario one. Fatima played the role of the dog owner, Gloria played the friendly neighbor, and Eglis was the extreme neighbor. And ACTION:

(There is a knock on Fatima’s door. She opens to find her neighbor, Gloria.)

Gloria: Good Morning Fatima. How are you?

Fatima: I am fine, and you?

Gloria: I am so tired. Your dog not let me sleep.

Fatima: Oh no.

Gloria: Every night he is barking so much. He never let me sleep.

Fatima: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I work at night.

Gloria: Yes, but I am so tired.

Fatima: Okay, I will do something.

Gloria: Thank you for hearing me. Thank you for receiving me.

Fatima: Yes, no problem. I am sorry. Bye.

(Fatima walks Gloria to the door. Eglis enters in a huff.)

Eglis: I HATE YOUR DOG! I can’t sleep. I HATE YOUR DOG! He is barking always.

Fatima: Take it easy. Sit down.

Eglis (still shouting): What are you going to do?

(Fatima speechless)

Eglis: I HATE YOUR DOG. I KILL YOUR DOG.

(Eglis storms out.)

And CUT! This conversation took place in English and ever since, whenever anything goes even remotely wrong in any aspect of my day, I must suppress the urge to shout, “I HATE YOUR DOG. I KILL YOUR DOG!"

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