Monday, July 23, 2007
So my correspondence is failing as the pace of our project is picking up. The volunteers leave community on August 5, and there's not much time left for them to complete their "Community-Based Initiatives," so I'm feeling a little pressured these days because (excuse my stereotype but...) EVERYTHING takes longer in Latin America and when you're working with bureaucrats within government agencies in a country whose infrastructure sometimes appears to be non-existent... I'm just going to let that run-on sentence trail off as you maybe get the idea by now. Change is slow and infinitely frustrating, but I'm so happy and feel so blessed to be working towards it every day.
We had our midterm break, when all of the volunteers spent a long weekend in Granada. It started off on the first day with a youth encuentro, a day-long activity involving youth leaders from all of the communities that we're working in. It got off to a bit of a rocky start as due to a mini transportation crisis. Half of the volunteers and youth participants did not arrive (surprise!) until halfway through the event due to (surprise again!) a failure on the part of our partner agency. So the day involved a lot of improvisation and I felt like I was walking around with "caution! unprofessional! do not respect her" tatoo-ed on my forehead. But the day was somewhat salvaged by the cultural/educational presentations made by youth. There was a charla on HIV, a one-act play, and tons of dancing: samba, salsa, cumbia, punta, folkloric, etc etc. The youth also sold food/jewelry as fundraisers, made presentations on the projects they are doing in each community, and were generally amazing.
The rest of weekend was a time for volunteers to relax, speak in English, call home, check their email, and share ideas/successes/frustrations with each other. The best activity that I think we did was a round robin in which volunteers met in small groups to discuss the issues of community support, how to measure success, health charlas, fundraising, and several other topics.
My time in this internet cafe is running out, so I'll leave with some pictures of July 19, Day of the Revolution, when the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled Nicaragua in 1979 and the Sandinistas came into power. Transportation in the entire region was halted that day and public buses instead brought people in from the communities surrounding Granada to meet in the central plaza and then begin an incredibly long caravan to Managua for a rally and a speech by (ex-)Sandinista, el presidente Daniel Ortega. The head of the FSLN party in Granada, Alejandro (befriended by our staff's political junkie Aaron) tried to convince us to jump into his pickup and join in the festivities. I was dying to, but senior staff had expressly forbidden any of us from going anywhere near Managua. The mobs, possible riots, and general drunkenness that were likely to ensue are I guess too much of a liability for Amigos. Maybe next year...
Above are pictures of buses waiting to go to Managua in the central plaza of Granada. Approaching Modern-day Revolutionary.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
I spend three days a week in the campo tucking into mounds of rice and beans three times a day, visiting with community members, and reeling off motivational-speak with my volunteers. This is both my favorite and most difficult part of the week. I love getting to know members of the communities I'm supervising-- I'm constantly surprised by how generous and friendly people are, both in opening their homes to my volunteers and their willingness to spend time and energy working with them. This past week though was a bit difficult to get through. The volunteers were expected to have completed mini-grants for the various community improvement projects they have identified that I could collect from them on route and bring back to Granada to be approved. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, not one of the three grants I was collecting was completed. I was torn between frustration that I was going to have to spend my weekend in Granada running around getting estimates from hardware stores, talking to contacts, etc. (which I did end up doing) and also really understanding why everything hadn't been completed. They all have great ideas for projects, and although things are and will be a bit slow to get started, I know they'll turn out well. I'm currently getting grants for a library, park benches, and a mural approved by senior staff. So it's very exciting work that I get to do and I have the incredible luxury of getting to seeing tangible projects be realized while I'm here-- but there are definitely daily frustrations. Like sometimes I think if I never have to get on another public school bus it'll be too soon. This past week on route I had to wait an hour for a bus that was stuck at the ferry. It's been a really bad (non-rainy) winter, so the water level was high enough for the floating cement block that passes as a ferry to get close enough to land to unload the bus. The only solution they have is for this one kid with a pick-axe to hack away at the dirt road so that the group of men surrounding him can fill up burlap sacks with dirt and throw them into the shallow water-- creating a sort of bridge from the ferry to land. Most of the time the buses just don't run when the water is too low. I have the advantage of being a white gringa who will almost always get picked up by passing trucks so I can hitchike when I need to, but sometimes it's too many hours spent sitting by the side of a dusty road for my taste...
Then I spend one day a week in a series of generally frustrating, chaotic, and bureaucratic meetings. People are constantly walking in and out of the tiny office that around 9 or 10 of us crowd into at MINSA, answering phones during the meeting, and managing to talk for hours without really saying anything at all. Our partner agencies occasionally pull through, but are typically more of a headache than anything else. Like the representative from the Ministry of Education who told us that MINED has no books at all to donate to the libraries that our communities want to build. She advised us to try and get donations of books from the very professors of the schools that are helping us fill out the grants because they don't have sufficient textbooks for every subject that is taught to the different grades let alone for individual students. !!! You are the Ministry of Education !!!!! Ugh.
And then the rest of the week is spent in the weird cultural oasis of Granada. The city has no infrastructure but is filled with gringo tourists. So I'm living at a house where we're often without water and electricity but currently sitting at a "Euro" internet cafe and having a piece of coffeecake... A typical week involves quite a bit of rollercoasting through mini culture shock-waves.
Which will start again tomorrow. Having a PB & J sandwiches-filled route picnic for my volunteers on Tuesday, which I know they're dying for. It's funny, I didn't used to like PB & J sandwiches before Amigos...
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Briefing was three days of icebreakers, going over project specifics, and 9 staff members trying our best to get to know 54 volunteers so that they could be placed into partnerships and communities. It was a stressful and draining few days, but now that it's over I am just bubbling over with happy thoughts and hyperbole. It was truly inspiring to meet so many teenagers who are so ready to embrace whatever comes their way this summer. I can't get over how young they are-- most haven't been away from home for this long before, let alone to Latin America! It's such an incredible commitment to make to do this program. Just thinking about the opportunity that our staff has to guide this group of eager young men and women through experiences that have the potential to change the way that they perceive the world gives me goosebumps. If my corniness is any indication, you can guess how endlessly my staff gushed about how proud we are of them-- I don't think they completely realize yet how big what they are about to do is. The hours that the supervisors spent as a group choosing partnerships and deciding in which communities to place them has really made me feel as though I have something invested in what each volunteer on this project accomplishes this summer.
The volunteers departed on June 17 for community with just a few initial hitches. My volunteers were the last to get picked up from the briefing site. Just as tensions were running high from a combination of anxiety and heat exhaustion, a wrinkled old man somehow appeared on the dirt road we were waiting by pushing a creaky, rusted ice cream cart. Shortly after our miraculous ice cream break, a MINSA driver showed up in an undershirt and shorts-- apparently having been abruptly summoned from his house to pick us up. The driver, Don Carlos, did a lot to soothe my nerves that day in the cab of the MINSA pickup truck while my volunteers bounced around in the back. I felt like an anxious young stressed-out mother who was sending her baby chicks off to school / to live in the Nicaraguan jungle for 7 weeks.
Dropping them off in community went well, except for one community in which I had to find a different host family for my volunteers due to a medical emergency in the original host family. My volunteers, two laid-back surfer boys from California, took it really well, even when they got caught in a rainstorm in the back of the pick-up while Don Carlos and I were searching for a different family. I bought them each a tamale bigger than any I have ever seen before and they were more than happy to pull on their rain ponchos and wait out the mini-crisis.
The next day I went out on my first route, staying a night in each of the communities, and was able to put all of my anxieties at rest. They're all going through a bit of culture shock, but are getting their bearings and have some great experiences ahead of them. In each community, I was able to help my volunteers make contact with any community counterparts I had identified on survey that they hadn't spoken to yet and get them started thinking about ideas for projects. The leader of the youth group in Los Angeles, Bismarck (!!!), who is this super-listo high school kid who is planning to go on to the university in Granada and study engineering, wants to work with the volunteers on a street repair project. The main road in town is dirt, and transportation, which is already iffy under the best of circumstances, gets much harder when it rains-- and we're pretty much in the rainy season... In El Paso, the youth group wants to build a fence to enclose the cemetery. The youth leaders are really dynamic, and the volunteers there are going to have so much fun-- they already called me today to ask permission to go dancing with their host sisters in the next town over. The boys in Los Cocos will have their work cut out for them, as there is neither a youth group or a health clinic-- BUT, it sounds like they're going to be working on organizing a first aid station in town so that community members don't have to walk an hour and half to the next town for basic medical attention! I'm arranging a meeting for them next week with the nurse in the nearest health clinic so they can get started.
Coming back to Granada was a much-needed break after briefing, followed by three days of nonstop positivity and motivational energy to buck up my volunteers. After doing not much but reading and napping yesterday, I ran errands today for my volunteers and then got lost in the depths of the marketplace. The vendors' stalls are a total labyrinth-- and there are so many people squeezed into narrow aisles that I'm constantly tripping over kids weaving through the crowds selling sodas, and bumping into clothing and CDs hanging from stalls, and trying to lean away from the pounds of raw meat sitting in the open air, and stepping around beggars, and stopping in the middle of the street to eat another piece of yuca from the banana leaf I'm splitting with someone, and stepping over trash, and shaking my head no to the constant stream of "qué te ofrezco, amor?" from vendors. It's just this yelling, smelly, intense, throbbing mass of humanity that is exciting and grittily real but can get overwhelming really quickly as you're trying desperately to glimpse the patch of light that means an exit to the street over people's heads.
I couldn't be happier. Right now I'm craving a dinner in the central plaza with my staff. We always have dinner as a group and my favorite meals are when we get street food from the women in the plaza who prepare pupusas, quesillos, enchiladas, gallo pinto, tostones... on iron comales balanced over open flames. Last night we got food from different vendors and sat on the stone steps of a church and people-watched by the light of dim streetlights, just sitting in the sticky embrace of those really great tranquilo summer evenings.
Monday, June 11, 2007
in the office of the mayor of granada right before our meeting! instead of the fat cat official we were expecting, the mayor turned out to be a super cool lady. we're hoping she will donate supplies to our project in the future.
staff house: our lovely outdoors kitchen (read: camp stove, a cooler, some tables, and plastic shelves). dishes waiting to be washed in the foreground due to the mysterious and undependable hours that our water decides to turn itself on and off.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Day1: started out at the office of our partner agency SILAIS, an organization which I think falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health (MINSA). A driver from SILAIS took me and the two other supervisors who will be working in the region of Granada to our communities in a pick-up truck. It was a great ride because of the relief from the heat you get in the back of a truck going I don't know how many miles per hour. The countryside is beautiful, it's so green here! At one point, we veered off the road and were literally driving along the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, which was like a dream for me. The lake stretches out farther than you can see and we had a breathtaking view of Granada on the horizon and the volcano Mombacha rising up behind the city. The colors of the landscape were just SO exactly what they were supposed to be. I wish I could do the scene justice, but there's a small chance that my camera is broken. I'll try to upload photos in the future.
I got dropped off in my first community, Los Angeles (ha ha..), which is actually a smaller subset of the town Malacatoya. It's sort of a planned community because it was built by this international NGO Fundación Tres Mundos (or something like that, and which I'm planning to research a bit more) only 7 years ago. Probably the highlight of staying in Los Angeles (at least in hindsight) was that the only host family I could find happens to run an evangelical church out of the back of their house. In a town that is so poor that I'm probably going to have to be carting sacks of beans and rice in every week so that the volunteers have enough to eat, I don't know where the host father (and head of the improvised church group) Don Martín got the money for an electric keyboard and speakers that are taller than I am. But somehow he managed to get ahold of a pretty fancy set-up. The service (which takes place three times a week) was already happening when I arrived with my stuff, and it triggered a mini panic attack. I think that the loneliness and anxiety about being out in the field by myself sort of sunk in just about the time I locked myself in my room. I curled up on my bed and literally felt songs about Jesus and love reverberating in the thin walls of the house and had to talk myself into a reasonable state of mind. I finally convinced myself that it was irrational to be afraid of evangelicals and forced myself to attend the service, because it was really my only option. It didn't turn out to be so bad. I'd read about how Evangelicalism in Latin America has actually been really empowering for women, and sitting through the service, I kept myself occupied with thinking about the Magic and Religion in Latin America seminar that I took last semester. I guess a Wesleyan education has some application in the real world.
Day 2: I arrived in the town of El Paso, which has ended up being my favorite of the three towns. I had to cross a ferry to get there which was a plus. I was initially nervous about this town because it does not have potable water and I just couldn't imagine putting volunteers into a situation where they might been the only ones in their host family who have easy access to drinking water because of the purification tablets they'll be bringing with them. But it turns out that El Paso has an amazing community. I spent a lot of the day at the health center, which is a rural outpost of the main hospital in the city of Granada. I made friends with Irma, the nurse there who is doing her social service; she is also 21 and it turns out 3 days younger than me. El Paso has an amazing youth group, whom I met in the afternoon and who then spent the next several hours helping me find host families for the volunteers. The youth group has a lot of energy and enthusiasm; they are currently working on raising enough funds to build a fence around the local cementery, and they're also involved with the projects being done around the issue of getting a potable water supply. Unfortunately, these projects are currently being held up at the regional level, and have been tied up with officials in Granada for a really long time. I'm a little worried about rule-breaking, because the youth I was hanging out with are really excited to take the volunteers to the discoteque in the town across the river, via the ferry, and I suspect there was a lot of leaving the community without permission by the volunteers from last summer. I had a lot of fun with them, and it made me miss having one community to live in for the summer. I'm a little jealous of the volunteers who are going to have the opportunity to work in El Paso and become closer with the youth.
But then I wouldn't have had the opportunity for Day Three: going to the town of Los Cocos. It's another small town, and I think will be a bit difficult because the community is not very organized. I think the volunteers will be able to work with the town's representative of Vision Mundial, another international NGO that works with women and youth in the community, doing health education and vocational training. There are also some nuns in the town who run a private elementary school. Despite their prominent TO ABORT IS TO KILL posters, they seemed nice and could be a good resourced. The host family that I found is wonderful and I spent most of my day hanging out with them. I would have liked to have gotten around the community a bit more, but it was too difficult to walk with my boot. I did get some rides from jovenes on the front of their bicycles, which seems to be the most common form of transportation here. Keeping your balance sitting sideways is harder than I would've thought, and I was a little worried that I would fall and break my other foot. And then really be up the creek. The host family has a pack of kids who entertained me by walking me around the family's land and testing me on all of the different kinds of fruit they introduced me to, fresh of of their respective trees. I am absolutely in a tropical paradise populated by fresh mango and guava!
Then I stood up for an hour squished into a big yellow schoolbus on my way back to Granada. I hadn't showered in days and I literally had to climb over people as we packed in more and more passengers at each stop (which was actually every ten feet because there aren't actual bus stops, just people waiting by the side of the road), but I was grinning like a fool the whole time. I ran into people I had met in my communities on the bus and it was like greeting old friends. I couldn't believe that I had survived the last few days and I can't wait for what lies ahead. First I just have to get rid of the allergic reaction I'm having to about a trillion mosquito bites without getting an injection, which seems to be the typical medical solution in Latin America.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
I arrived late last night to Managua, my face plastered to the airplane window as we made our descent. I was trying to imagine all those maps I've pored over of mi tierra casi-natal, but there was no landscape below that I could shape with my imagination. It was around 8 at night, and everything below me was as a black as could be, with a few clusters of lights. All I could think about was how much I wanted to remember that moment, one that I've been anticipating for most of my life, and impress it into my memory forever, one that I could recall at will in the future.
Amid a throng of eager teenage missionaries, I found my staff waiting for me in the airport. We squeezed into government-provided pickup truck for a sweaty, sticky 40-minute ride to Granada.
Our staff house is beautiful. The architecture is Spanish colonial, as are most of the buildings in Granada. What I've seen so far reminds me of a smaller version of Oaxaca City. Our house is huge with beautiful burnt yellow (the only way I can think of to describe the color) walls but with no furniture minus the few plastic chairs, tables, fans, and gas burners that our senior staff bought before the project supervisors arrived. The ceilings stretch to what must be 1.5 almost 2 stories (or is it storeys?) and there is a huge open patio with an overgrown avocado tree stretching to the sky in the middle of our house. Because it's so open, we have bats flying around and geckos climbing the walls. This really only affects our two manly men on staff who get the room without a door and walls that only go halfway to the ceiling. I'm sharing a room with the three other female project supervisors. We've got nothing in our room except two thin foam mattresses, so all my stuff is unpacked on the floor onto my wonderfully multi-purpose capulana.
Today we've just been going over project guidelines, etc. The slogan that we came up with for our staff is "La Lucha Feliz," and it's surrounded by a V of our handprints. Apparently there is a logic to the geese flying in Vs. The ones behind float on the backdraft of the ones in front so they don't have to over-flap their wings. When the ones at the front gets tired, they switch places. It seemed liked the perfect analogy for our staff. Right now I'm the goose floating in last position, two of my staff members are running errands for me so I don't have to walk on my foot.
Oh yes, I broke two tiny bones under my big toe last week and am wearing a walking cast. I was kind of freaked out at first, but I'm getting more confident. Yes, I do draw a lot of stares, but it's also obviously going to start every conversation I have for the rest of the summer. I'm going to have to come up with a better story than just wearing the wrong shoes. Anyway, everyone's being very supportive. I've gotten assigned to only 3 towns instead of 4, and they are the ones closest to Granada.
It'll work out. Tomorrow I'm going to be in community, locating host families and contacts for my volunteers. I'm terrified.