Thursday, July 3, 2008


So, our volunteers arrived. We had a few days of training and then shipped them off to their respective communities. I just got back the other day from visiting my volunteers during their first week. It was really nice to have a break from La Piedad and hang out with them -- I attended one of the daily classes they're doing with children in Zaragoza. The topic was trash, so they had planned some activities and games that centered around what is organic and what isn't and what can be recycled -- super cute. They're also already getting ideas from kids about what project they should enter in the Ecological Fair that will be on July 28 in La Piedad.

Mostly I have a lot of pictures that I downloaded from someone else's camera because I haven't been taking enough.

This is most of our staff with paletas. There is an AMAZING paletería just 3 blocks from our house and we are addicted en masse. Anyone who's going to be walking by the paletería when they leave the house automatically has to take orders for the rest of the group.

Before the volunteers arrived, we had a "capacitación de contrapartes jóvenes." Supervisors invited two youth from each community to attend a training workshop to teach them more about AMIGOS, our mission, what resources we have, and how they can act as counterparts to volunteers in their communities. I think that getting local youth involved is one of the most exciting aspects of the project -- we discussed how they'll be facilitating classes with volunteers and working closely with them to write grants for community projects. I met several jóvenes who were asking how they too could be AMIGOS volunteers... (Chema, who's looking directly at the camera is wonderful!!!!)

Lyndsay and me at the "mirador" that overlooks La Piedad

Welcoming our volunteers in Mexico City...

One our partner agencies, UNIVA (a private university in La Piedad) threw us a giant bienvenida complete with my favorite... MARIACHIS! Everyone got up and danced, thus creating an even bigger spectacle than we were to begin with as the only gringos in the entire city. We were even featured in the local paper :)

The day after we dropped volunteers off in community, we had an workshop about amaranth. I worked with amaranth when I was a volunteer in Oaxaca in 2002. It's a grain indigenous to Mexico that is promoted by health workers because of its incredibly high nutritional value. It's specifically used to combat under-nourishment in children. Pregnant and lactating women are also encouraged to include amaranth in their diet to promote the healthy development of their children. A health worker from Oaxaca ran this workshop, teaching community members about the value of amaranth and the consequences of malnutrition and conducting a sowing and cooking demonstration to encourage people to start their own gardens and begin to incorporate amaranth into familiar recipes. It was an amazing day, and incidentally the kind of work I'd really like to be doing post-AMIGOS....

Here, Liliana (from Oaxaca) is doing an activity about the process of growing amaranth.

Me washing quelite leaves for our cooking demonstration.

That's it for now!


Monday, June 23, 2008

El Otro Lado

My apologies for not posting sooner -- I feel a world away here in La Piedad and my correspondence has suffered a bit. Things are really busy here, our volunteers are arriving to Mexico City on Tuesday night. We'll be staying overnight in a church -- right across from the American high school that my dad and my tíos attended some time ago... before heading back to La Piead the next morning.

I've been visiting communities and helping the supervisors settle in. I'm only going to be in charge of one community, the town of Zaragoza, because of some unfortunate changes. Our supervisors spent last week on Survey, visiting and spending a night in each community where we'll be working. Due to various types of miscommunication, some communities did not receive us as well as others -- we had to make some last-minute changes to where we'll be working, and I'll only be supervising one community instead of two. It was hard to give one up, because I'm really excited about both of them and already felt really close to the fantastic host families I found, but such is life in the tropics...

Despites some rough patches, I mostly never cease to be surprised by how warm and welcoming the people I encounter on Amigos are. Corny, but absolutely true. Imagine some stranger showing up unannounced on your doorstep, looking for a place to stay and the opportunity to do some community service! Instead of thinking I'm crazy, I get welcomed with open arms into people's homes, I instantly become a confidante and a friend -- and I get sat down at some kitchen table or another and fed a stack of tortillas, meat, salsa, frijoles, arrozzz and so much more... I even tried to time a community visit so that I could skip lunch because I was so full from the being in another community the day before. I arrived at 5pm and told them I'd already eaten, but they sat me down anyway despite my weak excuses.

The hardest thing about visiting these "ranchos" as they're called, is that most of the time, half of the houses in town are empty and the towns are virtually devoid of young men. They're all working in the United States, which they refer to as "allá" (over there) or "el otro lado" (the other side). It's weird because I just finished reading "The Devil's Highway," a non-fiction account of a group of around 26 men who attempted to cross illegally into the U.S. and 14 of whom ended up dying. It's an incredible read, albeit gruesome in its details, and I thought about it a lot in community. It's sobering to realize that these are the mothers, wives, and children that countless men risk and sometimes sacrifice their lives for -- spending years in a foreign country working at jobs that no one else wants for virtually nothing. One of my host mothers hasn't heard from her husband for years -- she thinks he's in jail but hasn't been able to talk to him, and she has to raise her three children on her own.

Still, the good outweighs the bad for the most part. I'll post some pictures before I end this.

Below are Lyndsay and Peter in the Saturday market with one of our host contacts Mati, who works for DIF. She and her husband Rafa have been like our family in La Piedad -- Peter and Lyndsay and I stayed with them when we first arrived.

Lyndsay enjoying an enchilada in Guanajuato -- I'm still a little chicken when it comes to jalapeños, but I'm getting there...

Our house!!!

More soon I hope...

Love, Rebecca

Saturday, June 7, 2008

First Impressions

So I arrived in Mexico City on Tuesday and spent a few days baking in cross-town hour-long taxi rides on errands. I got to visit the U.S. embassy, which must be a very strange experience in any country, and Mexico is no exception. It's heavily fortified -- thick steel gates and traffic cones blocking traffic in front -- against what I'm not quite sure, since the surrounding neighborhood of Chapultepec appears to be on the ritzier side... I couldn't take any electronics inside and I had to be escorted around the premises. The premises included an outdoor market inside -- exactly what you'd find on the street but disturbingly calm and quiet, altogether sanitized for those who want a little bit of Mexico without the Mexican aspect of the deal.

I've been in my headquarter city of La Piedad since Thursday. I arrived to find it bigger than I expected and surprisingly free of pigs -- I've been threatened for weeks now that I was going to be wallowing in the pork production capital of the country for the summer. That industry has died out for the most part, so I've been told. Plus, I haven't seen or smelled any major pork production going on.

This is the view of the town from my window. We're staying in the house of one of our partner agency contacts. The center of La Piedad is located in a valley, so the town sort of rises up around it.

I'm here with the Project Director Lyndsay and the Assistant Project Director Peter setting up the program. So far the most official thing we've done besides quite a lot of paperwork is a successful first meeting with some of our partner agency contacts. We talked about the schedule for the summer and selected the communities our volunteers will be living and working in.

Here we are with some of the health officials we'll be working with this summer. It took a lot of effort to figure out the self-timer and get the camera at the right angle to take this picture.

The best and possibly most exciting aspect of my trip so far is the FOOD. I had forgotten how Mexican food in the U.S. just does not compare -- at all. There is chile on literally everything, which I'm getting used to in small increments.

More to come as things besides food actually begin to happen to me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

La Lucha / Updates

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

Almost to the Half-Way Point...

So Midterm (a three-day break for the volunteers that takes place in Granada) is coming up this weekend. It marks the halfway point for the summer, which I feel like has snuck up on me. I can't believe that I've already been here for five weeks! I guess I have settled into a sort of bizarre routine...

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 and First Route

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.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Some Pictures

trying biburrón in the market for the first time. yuca, cabbage, and fried pork skins wrapped in banana leaves somehow equal deliciousness. jenny and i ate lunch in the back of a vendor's stall today and i'm hoping we won't be paying for a potentially poor decision later with stomach problems. being good little health workers, we did use hand sanitizer beforehand and popped some pepto bismol as an after-meal mint.

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.

staff house: our central patio and my 2nd favorite hammock. will post a picture of my 1st favorite hammock at some point.