|Nine and a Half Weeks in Nicaragua|
Monday, July 30, 2007
Miraflor is a cooperatively run nature reserve, really just a bunch of families and farms trying to market itself to tourists through an organization called UCA, which stands for something about cooperative agriculture. I've seen a lot of things passed through bus windows. I've seen the usual exchanges of a couple of coins for candy and frescos (sugary sweet juice drinks that you sip out of a plastic bag), a plastic back full of five hundred cord bills, bushels of bananas, and the like, but this time I actually saw a baby shoved through the window at one stop. At this point, I was barely surprised.
After one of the most packed and bumpy busrides, yet, (that's really saying something) up into the mountains on the usual chicken buses (the old school buses), I was dropped off on a dirt road in a thunderstorm with only one sign with an arrow pointing to la comunidad de las perlas, part of the community of united families of Miraflor. The sun was setting. One woman did get off at the same stop, and walked me up the hill. I was slipping and sliding, and she managed to make it just fine in 3 inch heels while her two little boys rode a horse at her side.
I finally made it to the house where I was staying, which belongs to a woman named Maribel. I was greeted by two other visitors who were having dinner. Gallo pinto (rice and beans fried up together), avocado, and cheese. I knew it would be gallo pinto night. The two are here doing volunteer work in a small town further north, and one of them is taking my same flight back to the States on Wednesday. So now I have a friend to kill time with in the Atlanta airport. It's easy to make friends on your own, and you always meet the same people over and over again traveling the same routes in Nicaragua.
We all shared a guide the next day who led us through an orchid farm that doesn't bloom until december, a coffee plantaton and laboratorio (which we couldn't enter), and to watch a baseball game. She was very into the baseball game, and kept trying to get us to stay there under the pretense of 'observing campesino beisbol.'Really she just wanted to hang out with her friends. It started to rain again, so we skipped a dip in a waterfall, and I rode horseback back up to maribel's house for the night. I played cards with her kids, watched a boxing game on TV, and fell asleep absolutely exhausted around eight.
Whenever a volunteer leaves La Prusia, the school puts on a despedida. The whole affair involves hanging around for an hour while the students that have actually come to school that Friday afternoon assemble in a classroom, a couple of teachers saying a few words, three or fou raggaeton numbers in honor of the volunteer, and then a big line of cards and hugs as the students head out the door. I'd seen them before, knew exactly what to expect, and when the time came it felt like I was watching somebody else's despedida rather than my own. I don't feel like I was there long enough, gave enough, or really knew enough of the students to merit an all school affair. But that's how they do it at La Prusia, so I just stood there in the front of the room with Ervin Alberto, one of my preschoolers who I actually spent my entire first day reading with, at my feet clutching a tupperware full of rice and beans to take back home, smiled and hoped that they wouldn't try to get me to dance.
But they did. Of course. Like I said, that's how they do it at La Prusia. One out of a group of fifth grade girls dancing put on a pair of sunglasses, and started mouthing the words to a Daddy Yankee song. Egged on into the middle of the room, I stalled for about a minute, danced for a couple of seconds, and then was saved by the end of the song.
Most of preschool had already gone home. It was about four thirty by the time that we got started and there had been a futbol game for the past two hours. I don't think that goodbyes mean so much when you're that little, and getting to have a good last hug definitely means more to me than it does to them. So many volunteers come and go, they've done it too many time already. Georgina, Xochil, and Alberto were still there, though, and the preschool teacher tried to coax Georgina and Xochil into singing a song for me. They were too shy, and so they stood there looking wide eyed, awkward, and adorable while the rest of the school sang 'Elefante' as they mouthed the words, staring their toes and the ceiling. Of all of the preschoolers, Georgina reminds me most of myself when I was little, so it has been fun to work with her. As they left, she and Xochil both got all shy with me again, like they realized that I was leaving and that soon they wouldn't know me anymore. I was afraid that I would cry at some point, but I only started to tear up when one teacher asked me to say a few words. I knew I wouldn't get out of there without looking at least a little glossy eyed.
Christy, another volunteer who has been living here for a year, walked home with me. I wanted to walk instead of the bus for that last time, and it was good to be able to see a few kids in their houses, say goodbye again, and soak up my last hour or so of this time that I've been able to spend in La Prusia.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
I'm not going to say that it's just suddenly happened, like I woke up one morning and only had a week left. It's just that in the thick of it, I never really believed that I there would be a point when I wouldn't have any more days of kids asking me for pencil sharpeners every five minutes, reciting ma me mi mo mu with four year olds, showering out of a bucket by candlelight, yelling 'el callejon' (my bus stop) and then squirming out of a packed old American school bus, eating fried plantains (maduro) out of banana leaves from the comedor on my corner. All of the day to day that always ends up being the sweetest part.
Too much premature nostalgia. I still have this day, a weekend trip to Miraflor, and then one more day in Granada doing all kinds of last minute who knows what and packing. I can save the missing until I'm actually gone.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
We took our time while our guide, who appeared to be in his mid fifties or maybe even early sixties, took a lot of breaks to roll up cigarettes to smoke and touch up the trail with his machete. The poor man had to listen to us while we sang Grease and Spice Girls and whatever else we could think of to keep ourselves trudging along towards the end. Although, after doing with four times a week for fourteen years, he has probably had to deal with worse. I had my first monkey sighting, too, a white faced, long haired, and very suspicious creature that was eying us from a tree off of our trail. We also encountered a small family of monkeys eating bright orange fruit down by the entrance to the finca (farm) where we spent the first two nights, a forest crab that snapped its claws at us as we walked by (and when our guide poked at it with a stick).
We ended up staying at this intensely crunchy hippy eco-farm owned by two Italians in the middle of the island the next night, resting sore muscles and singing eighties songs. We ate at a comedor on the island and when a hog walked through the tables to rub up against a boulder in the cooking area i didn't even think twice. For some reason, that made me happy.
The food was amazing. We just asked for whatever they had, and the women working there emerged from a smoky back area behind the house with six heaping plates of rice, beans, avocado, thick and sweet homemade tortillas, and a dollap of ketchup to top it off. I asked if they had any salsa, any chile sauce to put on our food, and she plucked these little green pepper bulbs from the bushes around us, dropped three or four in the middle of the table, and told me to be careful. More than enough spice.
Also, I've started to take dance lessons. They're once a week, fifty cords a class, and pretty much my whole house goes. We do salsa (not real salsa, I've been informed, but an easier gringo version- still pretty rough for me), bachata, and merengue. We never have enough guys around to partner up with, so the teacher recruits these awkward and a little bit gawky teenage boys to dance with us. I definitely have middle school and high school school dance flashbacks at certain points during lessons. My usual partner appears to be about fourteen years old, and, when we first started, would sort of hold my skirt instead of actually touching my hip. I think that he's getting used to me, but the awkward factor doesn't exactly help me get over how stiff I am to start with.
Friday, July 13, 2007
La Esperanza put on a summer school program for the the kids at La Epiphania two weeks in the middle of my time here. La Ephiphania is kind of like the model school around here, and, compared to what I was doing with pre-schoolers at La Prusia, I felt like I was working with little geniuses. Adding and subtracting and shouting out A E I O U like nobody's business. I noticed a USAID poster up at that school, too, so I wonder if there was ever a project, extra funding, etc. etc. put behind La Epiphania.
I missed La Prusia, though, so I was happy to go back at the beginning of this week. I was sure that all of the kids would have forgotten me. We sat around the table talking about the break, and this is what all of the kids said that they did.
Went to Granada to buy cookies. And chicken.
Went to Managua to buy cooking oil.
Went to the beach with their moms.
Attendance has been it's worst since vacation let out. The teacher told me that one girl, Gissel, who also happens to be the best student in the class, isn't coming back, that the family has moved away. I do have three who are coming everyday, though. Ervin Alberto, Ronal, and Georgina. In hopes of trying to keep them coming back, I have been playing marathon games of el tiburon (shark). El tiburon involves me pretending to swim, snap my jaw like a very scary shark, and chase them around until I catch them and pretend gobble them up while they giggle. It's more popular then swinging on the swings right now, and I feel like I'm loosing my swing set pushing muscles.
I feel like the kids finally know me. I am also realizing how nervous I was around them at first, just how awkward and a little bit scared of working with kids that I was. At this point, with so many volunteers coming and going all the time, it's like they are some of my most long term friendships in this place. And now I'm going in two and a half weeks. Yes, I know that they won't really miss me and that more people will come and go and that they are used to it and that's the system and all of that, but it just leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Spending a summer used to feel like somewhat of a commitment, but now it just seems like a tease. All I had to commit was an in between, between either really living here or purely passing through and a little chunk of time in between years in school.
The preschool teacher has more lessons planned out this term than at the end of the last one. We still seem to be doing a lot of drawing, but lately it has involved cutting, coloring, numbers, and letters, so I have been staying in the classroom and trying to keep the momentum going rather than taking them out to work one on one. There is a new volunteer here who is going to take over as preschool helper after I go. She keeps asking me what she should do, what normally happens, and I just kind of look at her a little bit blankly, because there is no real rhyme or reason to anything here. I can tell her about the kids, but she'll get to know them on her own. I do tell her that she lucked out with preschool. They are the best, I'm sure of that.
Monday, July 2, 2007
We took a weekend trip to Esteli on Saturday morning. Twenty minutes into the trip two red plastic buckets were passed down, and my friend Rachel and I took turns switching off sitting on it in the middle of the aisleway. That is until I managed to fall asleep while perched on it. It was kind of impressive, really. I just put my head down and fell fast asleep while a crowd of passengers huddled around me passing little bags of water down the aisleway and a woman sold quesillos out of her apron, exchanging money over my head.
They put on this terrible terrible 80's-couple-of-guys-go-to-the-beach movie called Private Resort. Definitely not appropriate for all of the little kids looking up at the screen from their mom's laps. The driver and the other bus guys kept taking pictures with their cell phones, sending text messages, and passing around a drink that they sipped out of a coconut. We did make it to Esteli.
Esteli is further north of Granada, and up in the mountains. It´s a little town of cowboy boots, cigars, and an uncanny number of dentists´offices. There isn't a whole lot to do in Esteli, and we went with the intention of going directly to Miraflor, a nature reserve that is two hours away from the city. Bus service is spotty, though, so we would have been hiking in the dark, which would kind of hinder the frolicking in waterfalls, butterfly and monkey watching, and all of those other cliche touristy nature things that we were looking forward to. We opted to hang around Esteli instead, and managed to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around town looking for a place for one of my friends on the trip to buy a good pair of cowboy boots. We ended up sitting on a bench and eating candy in the park. One of the highlights of the trip was being able to sleep with a sheet on and not waking up with the power out, the fan stopped, and drenched in sweat. Esteli is in the highlands, so it is a little cooler. We heard rumours that we'd need sweaters and we all got excited and packed one. No such luck. It was still hot, just a little bit more bearable.
Sunday morning we headed out to see a waterfall just outside of town. We wandered around looking for breakfast first. Esteli opens late on Sunday mornings, and the best place to eat appeared to be a Shell Station. Reccomended: pancakes, omlettes (listed as an omleth). Not reccomended: cornflakes and milk. Unless you like yours heated up, all soggy and swimming in a big bowl of nice warm milk.
Back on the highway, we caught a taxi to the entrance of the falls, walked a little ways and then spent an hour swimming and taking cheesy photos. The water was actually chilly, and I actually got goosebumps. I forgot what those felt like.
Friday, June 22, 2007
I have really been enjoying my time at school lately, and it is getting so much easier and more natural to be there. I think that when the kids first met me my newness was distracting, but now they are getting used to me. They know my name- for the most part, anyway- and I'll respond to Liola and Biola. It's close enough. I'm starting to know them more, too, and I love it how now I can pick up on their moods. Although now that I am less scary they are more comfortable asking me for attention, and I just feel spread too thin, especially when the pre-school teacher steps out of class. On Friday everyone was cranky and drained. Myself definitely included. Kids were crying, knees were scraped, catty arguments over who was sitting next to who. I gave up trying to make it through Peter Pan, and we all just hit the swingset at the end of the day. It's a pretty surefire remedy for preschooler anxieties.
On the tourist front, I went to San Juan del Sur last weekend. I had heard mostly terrible things about San Juan del Sur, so my expectations were pretty low. Yes, it is touristy, and yes, they speak to you in English, and yes there were moments when I felt like I could blink my eyes shut, open them, and realize that that I was actually in San Diego. But I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the town, and it felt good to spend a little time with the Pacific again. I'm from California- it is my ocean, and I have to love it whether it is secluded and scenic or littered with empty Tona beer bottles and tacky seafront bars.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The weekend before last, I went on my first weekend trip. Using my time off to travel and explore Nicaragua is going to be one of the best parts about being here.
We went to Leon, which is a city further north that is about the same size as Granada, although the feel of the place was a little different. You can still spot political murals painted on the walls of buildings throughout the city, it is a little bit hotter and dirtier, and there are more major American chains. We found a Payless Shoe store and a Radio Shack within walking distance of our hostel, and we also ventured into an enormous and very well air conditioned supermarket that had the potential to keep us entertained for quite awhile.
We used our first afternoon to take care of standard tourist business i.e. churches, museums, walking around the park. As soon as we walked into the central plaza, I recognized the main Cathedral. I had a photograph of it set as my computer's desktop background when I was trying to save up and make plans for this trip. The church was pretty stunning inside, and we all wandered around it trying to take it all in. I had trouble resisting the urge to take pictures inside, because there were a good number of people there praying. I always feel a little guilty when I am just standing inside a church for the sake of appreciating it as a place, when all of the people around me are appreciating it as something holy. They're used to it, I know, but I hate knowing the I am the 60th Gringo that has just flatly stood there beside them taking in the scenery.
We also managed to visit a couple of museums that day, one art museum and the Ruben Dario museum. The Ortiz art museum was recommended by everyone that I talked to about Leon, and it is pretty gorgeous. You start out with a bunch of old colonial portraits and then you move onto more modern art; abstractions of the scenery here, a few Diego Rivera sketches, and I remember one painting with poetry about snowflakes and shivering scrawled across the canvas.
On Sunday, we visited the museum of Myths and Folklore, which has been set up in an old prison. Paintings of inmates and torture have been put up on the walls behind scenes of traditional Nicaraguan celebrations and ceremonies. The concept is nice, acknowledging both the positive and the negative of Nicaraguan history and culture and reconciling the two.
Sunday was the main event of our trip, though: volcano boarding. This is something that our hostel started doing a couple of years ago, and it involves getting on a little sled, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and goggles, and sliding down a very steep slope made of black volcanic rock. It was like sledding on steep gravel. I was so freaked out at the start, that I just hit the breaks (meaning I dragged my feet) and then I was burried in a pile of rocks about 20 feet down the slope. I had to dig myself out, and by the time I finished doing that I decided that if I was going to do this I may as well just let go and trust the I can balance. So, I tried to push off again and did, eventually make it down.
I also really liked the hike up the volcano beforehand, and you can dig into the earth and feel the heat. We climbed down into a crater and then crawled back out. You could smell the sulfur and it was so steep that you are basically hands and knees on your way back up.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
I forgot how difficult counting to ten can be. And identifying colors, telling red from green. Tough stuff.
I had my first real day at preschool on Monday. What with all of the rain last week very few kids showed up, and so the last few days were a very mellow, toned down introduction to what I am going to be doing here. I am a little bit overwhelmed. I never expected to be a fantastic teacher, and I don't think of myself as someone who is good with kids. I expected it to be hard and anticipated the frustrations, but in the day to day it is difficult to keep perspective. My Spanish is so limited, and I don't know how to begin to help kids that have really severe learning and behavioral issues. I recognize that, as a volunteer, I am only one part of a larger project. Beyond that, I am only one tiny piece of a bigger system. I'm not completely discouraged in any sense of the word, just wading through all of the anxieties and the hard stuff that is still to come. Maybe I am realizing just what I have gotten myself into, for better and for worse.
In other news, I had my first venture into Managua on Saturday night. Managua seems to be nobody's favorite city, but I am interested in exploring it and getting to know the place a little bit. A big group of volunteers decided to go see Sean Paul in concert and there was an extra ticket. It was cheap enough, and I couldn't resist the novelty of the whole event. We took the bus into the city, and I met these two kids from El Salvador living in Managua on the way. The little girl eyed me for a good ten minutes before she mustered up the courage for a 'Hello.' Pretty adorable. She was thoroughly entertained by our little group scattered throughout the bus.
The concert took place about three hours after it was supposed to start in a big lot adjacent to a casino. This Sean Paul guy is quite full of himself. We had to yell his name so many times before he finally strutted on stage. Not that I could actually see anything, mind you. 'Ladies, ladies, ladies' he would croon between basically every song. He also renamed the city 'Womanagua.' Clever, Sean Paul. It was a good time, though. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, especially after the crowd managed to push down the fence separating our section from the one in front of us. We could just strolled right on over it. Throughout most of the concert, we had this buffer zone between us and the rest of the crowd. It looked like everyone wanted to keep some distance from the silly awkward gringos, with the exception of the random guy that would just dance up to us.
Time for school.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
I'm writing this from a place called Cafemail, an internet cafe right off of Parque Central. At any given time there are three other volunteers here, and you can hear motown or extroardinarily sappy slow Latin rock songs are playing in the background. I can hear birds and traffic outside and, lately, buckets and buckets of rain pounding against the pavement. I've been in Granada since Sunday, so the end of my first week is fast approaching, and I haven't even written a real entry. I'm not sure where to start, but I guess I should explain what I'm doing here.
The organization is called La Esperanza Granada, and it was founded by a Nicaraguan and a couple of backpackers who decided that they could help out the local schools. The idea is that we work with the school system, and provide one on one tutoring to students in classes. I'm at a school in a town on the outskirts of Granada in a town called La Prusia. I'm going to be with the pre-schoolers, and the other volunteers at the school are amazing with the kids.
I haven't had a full day of school, yet. The rain has prevented most kids from going to class. When you have to trek an hour through the mud, and you don't really have a change of clothes or a good place to dry off, most kids end up staying home. Attendance is pretty spotty anyway. It's amazing who does show up. There is one girl with cerebral palsy whose mother carries her on her back an hour to and from school who braves the rain, and one tiny tiny boy showed up on the top of horse. School was canceled, though, so we went home. Mother's day celebrations where on Monday. These involved dance competitions with the moms who were coaxed into performing for the whole school. The competitions turned into blasting reaggaeton, and two moms, no joke, grinding up against each other- that was my introduction to the school at La Prusia.
Today will be my first attempt to take the bus by myself. Basically, you head down to the bus station, which is on a corner by the market, and you push past these guys that actually grab you to try to get you to ride the buses that they work on. They are privately owned, and so they have some incentive to try to get your 5 cords (that's about 30 cents). Anyway, you have to push past them and shove onto the most crowded bus, because that's the one that is leaving first. If you are lucky you get a party bus. Those blast music down the street, starting at 6 in the morning, and frequently drive past our house. After about a ten minute ride, you get off by an a police station, and walk up a path which gets pretty mucky in the rain, and up to the school.
What else...Wednesday was a beautiful day. After a meeting to plan parties for international children's day, we had the day off for the official mother's day holiday. We walked up to this lagoon, Laguna Apoyo, which was made out of the inside of an old volcano. There is a touristy side also, where Nicas sit around drinking beer, but we hiked up this secluded path, through La Prusia actually. It was gorgeous, and I felt so grateful to be here. We swam out into the lagoon and floated on driftwood. Some of the volunteers played cricket on the beach with sticks, and we headed back when it got dark. The buses stopped running, so we ended up getting a ride with a Canadian couple living down here, and the woman handed us her card. Apparently, she's the ambassador to Nicaragua from Canada. Or so the card said. Crazy.
There's a lot of expats around here. They own a fair share of restaurants, hotels, bars, etc. There's a man named Jimmy that owns a bar called Jimmy Three Fingers, basically living out some kind of fantasy of his. Every night he sits at the bar with his guitar and plays Van Morrison and Johnny Cash, makes himself the star of his own show.
Random place to stop, but I have to go to school now.
I am loving this so far.