The volunteers finally arrived on June 14 to be overwhelmingly greeted by my yelling, bouncing, "NICARAGUA" hat-wearing, sign-waving staff in the Managua airport. We drove straight to the briefing site, an ex(?)convent run by nuns. Or something along those lines. It's just outside of Granada, and there's of course a view of both the lake and the volcano Mombacho from the rooftop. I still can't get over that those two landmarks are the backdrop for my life right now.
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.