A Redhead in Nicaragua

My Great Nicaraguan Adventure

Yo no sé mañana…

Hola, amigos!

I write this, my last blog post in Nicaragua, with a very heavy heart and tears in my eyes. I can’t begin to put into words how much this semester has meant to me and how much I’m going to miss this country and the incredible friends I’ve made over the past 3 1/2 months. We spent our last day here at the Casa San Juan reflecting on our time here and preparing to re-enter into the United States. Tonight, we invited our homestay mamas here for one last dinner all together before the program ends tomorrow. We all prepared some poems and a dance and then taught our moms the Wobble as a little way to share our culture with them. I never thought I would see a bunch of middle aged and elderly Nicaraguan women get down like they did tonight! I said my final goodbyes to my mom and  we exchanged addresses so we can write each other in the future. But for now, I’m going to cut this post short so I can enjoy the last few hours I have with these amazing, loving, beautiful inside and out friends. So with this I say adios a Nicaragua. And to the U.S., I’ll see you tomorrow! Buenas noches a todos.

Con amor,

La Pelirroja en Nicaragua (The Redhead in Nicaragua)

P.S. I will upload the pictures I have of the Purisima and the last few days within the next week or so, so check my FB album!

The end is near…

¡Hola amigos!

I am proud to announce that my ISP is completely done! The title of my ISP is “The Value in Organizing: Unions and the Defense of Labor Rights in Nicaragua” and is a total of 23 1/2 pages with a 2 1/2 page bibliography. It was such a relief to print it out and hand it in and just be DONE with it! This project has been my life for the past month and it was a little surreal to see it finally come together. I presented my research yesterday morning during our ISP presentation time so now we are all officially done.

After our presentations yesterday morning, we moved out of our host family’s houses and back into the Casa San Juan, where we’re staying for the last few days of the program. It feel a little weird to be back here, since this is where we started the program. The last time we were here, we were all just getting to know each other and now, we’re like a big, loud, slightly insane family.

After moving back into the CSJ, we returned to Maximo Jerez for dinner and to partake in La Purisima celebrations. La Purisima is like a religious Nicaraguan Halloween celebrating the Virgin Mary. Families create this beautiful altars in front of their houses and groups of people go from house to house to sing religious songs in front of the altars. The families that put up the altars then give gifts to the singers, which can be anything from ladles to lip gloss to small dolls to little bags of coconut milk. This process goes from 6 PM up until midnight and is celebrated throughout the entire country.

Today, we spent the day doing some exit interviews for our Spanish classes and talking about our ISP process with our academic director. Other than that, we just have some final stuff to wrap up and we get to spend the last few days all together as a big group. We get to go to the beach tomorrow for the day, so I’m really excited about that! I’ll try to write once more before heading back to the States. I’ll see y’all soon!!!

Adventures in ISP Land (and some even cooler adventures)

Hello again!

Since coming back from Estelí, I’ve been stationed in Managua working on the second part of my ISP research. I’ve been interviewing union representatives and Free Trade Zone factory workers on the challenges they face as unionized workers. That had all been going pretty well, so a bunch of us decided to have ourselves a little adventure last weekend. First, I left ahead of the group on Friday for San Pablo to visit my campo sister and family. I was originally supposed to visit them while in Estelí, but I had gotten sick so I had to cancel at the last minute. This time, I left Managua at 7:30 AM with my backpack holding a 10 pound bag of sugar, a jug of cooking oil, and school supplies for my siblings and boarded my bus for Matagalpa. Unfortunately, there were no seats left, so I was given a small plastic stool to sit on in the aisle for the 2-hour ride. Unfortunately (again), one of the legs was broken, so I spent most of the ride trying to balance on the other three legs until a nice lady told her little boy to sit on her lap in her row so I could have the other seat. Once I got to Matagalpa, I boarded a bus for San Ramon, where I met up with Sam, and then we took another bus through the rural roads to San Pablo.

My sister met me at the bus and was so excited to see me! My host mom gave me a huge hug when she saw the sugar and oil (those things tend to be more expensive) and my siblings were excited to get the notebooks and Spanish-English dictionary for school. I only had a few hours to spend there (my bus got in at 12:30 and the last bus out to Matagalpa that day left at 4:40 from a town an hour’s walk away), so my sister and I just spent the time hanging out together and talking. When I got in, my mom immediately put a huge plate of food in front of me for lunch. I hadn’t wanted to eat any of their food, but they insisted that I eat with them. Then, not even 2 hours later, they tried to feed me dinner (they made chicken, which is not something they can afford to eat regularly), since they knew that I would be traveling the rest of the day and they were afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find time to eat dinner. I was stuffed, but ate a few bites to appease them and asked them to save it for their own dinner later. Their generosity still ceases to amaze me.

A little after 3:00, Sam and his host brothers came by my house and a group of us started the walk to Naranjo to catch our bus. It was an hour walk all uphill on rural dirt roads. Luckily, my host cousins brought some horses, so they carried our bags as we walked up. From there, Sam and I boarded the bus to Matagalpa, where we hoped to catch a bus to León, where two of our friends were waiting for us. Unfortunately, we learned that the last bus for León had already left, so our taxi driver offered to take us to another bus station off the highway where he said there would be another bus to León. By the time we got there, we learned that it had left early, so we just had him take us to the hostel that I had stayed at before in Estelí, where we stayed overnight so we could take a bus out to León the next morning.

The next day, we arrived at Bigfoot Hostel in León to meet up with our other two friends. Why did we choose this hostel? This is the only place in Nicaragua that offers volcano boarding tours!!! Our group climbed on the back of the flatbed of a large truck and set out from the city and into the rural area surrounding León to Volcán Cerro Negro. This volcano is the most active volcano in Nicaragua and it’s last eruption was in 1999. We got dropped off at the foot of the volcano and because the difficult hike up the rocky side, carrying our canvas jumpsuits and sleds. Once we reached the top, we got to sled down one by one on the . Standing up there,  it was pretty scary to look down. We were a loooong way up! When it was my turn, I put on my goggles, hopped on my sled, and pushed off. I started going really fast… so fast that I had trouble controlling my sled. I ended up wiping out twice and the second time, I lost my sled and had to run down the rest of the volcano. Even so, it was so much fun! How many people get the chance to sled down a volcano??? Afterwards, we got back on the truck and went back to the hostel for some much needed showers.

After León, I went back to Managua for a few more days to do some more interviews and visit the Free Trade Zone (I had to wake up at 4:30 that morning… not fun…) Yesterday, for the final stretch of the ISP process, I took a bus up to Matagalpa to stay at a hostel with some friends and finish writing my project. I am currently at La Buena Onda Hostel and I absolutely love it! It’ by far the nicest hostel I’ve stayed in and it’s so nice to get away from the heat of Managua to finish my essay.

So that’s that! I can’t believe that my program ends in 11 days and I’ll have to say goodbye to this wonderful country. I’m just going to try not to think about that, finish my essay, and enjoy the time with my friends that I have. Adios, amigos! Gotta go get some writing done…

Lovely, lovely Estelí

Hola amigos!

Sorry I haven’t written in a while. I just got back on Wednesday from a week in Estelí for the start of my ISP period to research rural workers and the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC) (Association of Rural Workers). Let me just say that Estelí is a wonderful city! It has a walking downtown commercial area (unlike Managua) and it has a much more temperate climate. It is also the home to many cigar factories and leather craftsmen. During my week there, I was lucky enough to mix some sightseeing and leisure time into my research.

Wednesday, November 7                                                                                                                                                                                                                   After a late night of watching the elections on TV, I left for Estelí with two of my friends who are also doing their ISP there. In the morning, I had an interview in Managua with one of my ISP advisors about the history of unions in Nicaragua and immediately after, traveled to the bus station for a 2 hour bus ride to Estelí. We arrived late that afternoon and used the last few hours of daylight to explore our new city and orient ourselves a bit.

Thursday, November 8                                                                                                                                                                                                        Thursday morning I got up early and set out to find the ATC for my first set of interviews! I had been given the name of Antonio, the campo youth director at the center and he was to be my advisor over the course of the week. I finally found the center (I had been wandering around for about 20 minutes, only to eventually figure out that it was pretty much a straight shot down from my hostel, four blocks away. Naturally…) and waited inside to meet Antonio. When he arrived, he gave me the whole overview of the history of the center and what it does in Estelí and the surrounding rural communities. After, he offered to take me to meet one of the men in charge of the center. I agreed and found myself wandering through the city with Antonio to a more residential area, where we walked into this man’s house. He had apparently been home sick, but still wanted to conduct an interview. So I sat down next to him on his threadbare couch, pulled out my digital recorder, and conducted a half-hour interview with him still in his pajamas. I then returned to the center, where Antonio and I made plans for him to take me to interview workers at a local tobacco cooperative farm and to interview a lawyer on staff at the ATC. I then left to go join Briana for lunch at a local café downtown. We finished up lunch, left and returned back to the hostel, where we had a horrible realization: WE LEFT WITHOUT PAYING! We hustled back to the café and ran into Jake on the way, who accompanied us back (probably to witness our embarrassment firsthand). While Briana and I were paying/apologizing profusely to the waiter, a girl at one of the tables started talking to Jake. He was wearing his Macalaster t-shirt and she apparently knew one of his friends at his school. We all ended up talking to her (Nicole) and learned that she is a recent college grad from the US and is here organizing medical brigade of college students that help out in the northern rural areas. She was telling us that her co-workers had been gone since the previous Saturday, leaving her somewhat desperate for English conversation. She then invited us to her house for dinner that night! She seemed pretty nice (and she said that she had a puppy) so we were pretty sold on it! That night, we cooked a lovely dinner with our new friend and made plans to grab dinner with her and one of her co-workers the next night.

Friday, November 9                                                                                                                                                                                                                         On Friday morning, I dressed myself in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt in preparation for my trip to a tobacco farm. I arrive at the ATC office to meet my mode of transportation to and from the farm: a motocicleta (kind of a cross between a motorcycle and a dirt-bike). Yeah… I was a little nervous. Luckily, Antonio assured me that he was an excellent driver and had never had an accident. So I hopped on behind him, held on for dear life, and began the journey to Finca San Nicolás, the tobacco farm. Once we arrived, I got a short tour of the fields and had the chance to interview some of the workers planting the tobacco seeds and tending the earth. Since this farm is a cooperative and works very closely with the ATC, they did not appear to deal with the same kind of issues that employees at some of the private farms have, especially regarding salaries and working conditions. After the farm, I returned to the city for lunch and then to interview an attorney that works for the ATC, as well as the women’s secretary. After spending most of the day focused on my ISP, I took the rest of the day to tour around some more before heading out for dinner with Nicole and her other friend (who’s name I can’t remember). While at dinner, they mentioned that they were going to beach for the weekend and asked if we would be willing to feed their puppy while they were gone and, in exchange we could stay at the house and cook our meals there. Of course we agreed, took their spare set of house keys, and enjoyed the rest of the night all together.

Saturday, November 10                                                                                                                                                                                                                  On Saturday morning, Briana, Jake, and I took a tour of a tobacco factory. It was so cool to see all the stages of the tobacco leaves as they go into cigar production, especially since I had just visited a tobacco farm the day before. At the end, I bought a whole bunch of Nicaraguan cigars for US $1 each (happy birthday, Dad!!!). After the tour, I wandered around the leather district for a while and got my dad the second part of his birthday present (his birthday is tomorrow and I’m really sad that I won’t be there to celebrate it with him. Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll make it up when I come back with lots of presents!) I also walked around to pick up supplies for the campo. A bunch of us on the program planned to return to our campo families on Sunday to visit for the day. I was so excited to see my sister again! I bought sugar and oil for my parents, notebooks, pens, and a Spanish-English dictionary to help my siblings and cousins in school, and twelve Hershey’s chocolate bars to share. Throughout the afternoon, I had been feeling a little under the weather, but I figured that I was just a little tired. By the time we arrived at Nicole’s house to make dinner, however, I was already running a fever. I was so determined to make it to the campo the next day that I refused to admit to my friends I was sick until I was full-on shivering back at the hostel and throwing up. So I had to admit defeat and could unfortunately not go to the campo the next day. I had to call my sister and she was so upset, but we’ve already made a plan for me to visit next weekend, so hopefully my immune system will stay strong until then!

Sunday, November 11 – Wednesday, November 14                                                                                                                                                                Ok, I’m clustering all these days together because nothing super exciting happened because I spent them either sick or recovering from being sick. I had gotten pretty dehydrated so it took a while for me to feel better, so I just kept drinking rehydration salt fluid (it tasted like orange-flavored salt water. It was pretty gross) and resting and doing some reading for my project. I left Estelí on Wednesday afternoon and have been in Managua ever since.

I’m so excited to start my interviews here in Managua with the Free Trade Zone workers and unions. I already have an interview lined up for Monday morning and I can’t wait to see what else I can work on! See y’all soon!!!

Also check out some of my photos from the week on my Facebook album!

A Cultural Incident

Hello all!

I’m partway through my third month here in Nicaragua and it’s become clear that this semester is going wayyyy too fast! On Tuesday, we all part ways to begin our ISP projects. After over two months of always being together, this means that there are people that I won’t see again until we all reunite in December for the end of the semester, which is a pretty sad thought. Anyway, I thought I’d share my ISP proposal! I am going to study worker’s centers and unions and examine how they advocate for workers with regards to hours, salary, and working conditions and how these organizations are received by the workers themselves. I wanted to study both rural and urban workers, so I am going to study tobacco pickers in Estelí (a small city surrounded by rural countryside about 2 hours north of Managua) and factory workers in the Free Trade Zone in Managua. On Wednesday, I will get on a bus for Estelí and spend a week there at the   Luna Estelí hostel. I will most likely return to Managua the following Tuesday to being my work at the factories. Then, if necessary, I have the rest of the month to return to Estelí for any follow-up interviews. I am so excited and I will be sure to keep you all updated on my progress!

Anyway, I also wanted to share with you something that I had to write up as part of a homework assignment. Throughout the semester, we have to write up two “cultural incidents.” Our director defines cultural incidents as occurrences that go against our previously held beliefs or comfort levels. We are supposed to write about them and examine how we perceive these occurrences in relation to our personal “truths” and then learn to grow from them. I recently turned in my second cultural incident, which occurred a bit before my trip to El Salvador, and I think it’s something I wanted to share here. So here is a part of my most recent cultural incident.

“Many evenings, I watch the news with my host mom while eating dinner or relaxing on the porch before bed. One thing that continues to shock me over and over is the very graphic images displayed so casually on primetime news. Many times I have seen video of the bloody aftermaths of car accidents or the corpses of shooting victims casually broadcasted on national news channels. As I tend to have a weak stomach and do not handle gory images too well, these reports often upset me so I tend to look away. More recently, I encountered a report that upset me to the point of tears. I was reading a book while my mom was watching the news when all of a sudden she directed my attention to the screen and told me to watch what happens. They were covering a story from a bull-riding event in which the bull fell on its side with the rider still attached, crushing him to death. The bull then righted itself and continued to run around the ring with the dead rider still attached and flopping around like a doll before the bull could be restrained. At first I could not look away; I was too horrified. My mom watched too, but she did not seem to be as affected as I. I started to tear up and discretely dried my eyes, so that she would not notice that I was upset. A person’s life ending right before my eyes was too much for me to handle and, even though it was on TV and not in person, it really disturbed and upset me. Later when I mentioned the graphic nature of the news programs to my mom, she was surprised that I found it so shocking and disturbing and was even more surprised when I told her that news stations in the United States do not air content of that nature, especially during primetime.”

So… yeah… that happened. It was pretty hard to watch and I was upset about it for a little while, but I think that having to write about it and then reflect on my reaction to it helped to understand it better. Anyway, that was just something I wanted to share, since it touches upon just a normal aspect of life here that caught me off-guard.

Also, I finally finished uploading all the pictures from my week in El Salvador! You can find them in my Facebook album here.

Hope and Heartbreak: A Week in El Salvador

Hello friends!

I am very happy to say that I arrived home to Nicaragua from El Salvador safely yesterday and I am now enjoying (not really) the oppressive Managua heat and humidity. Ahhh… home sweet home. This past week in El Salvador was one of the most emotionally trying ones that I’ve had in a while. The purpose of this excursion was to study El Salvador’s revolution and civil war from of the     1970s-90s and compare it’s history with Nicaragua’s, as well as study their effects on Salvadoran society today. We did and learned so much, so I’m going to try to give a good day-by-day explanation of the past week.

But first… a little background on how we ran our trip. El Salvador is not exactly a super safe country… it has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011 study, El Salvador was the country most affected by lethal violence in 2004-09, followed by Iraq. Yep… you read that right. El Salvador = #1, Iraq = #2. Needless to say, security was a MAJOR part of our program and SIT did an excellent job with keeping us safe. We only traveled by private minibus and we only walked when deemed safe and appropriate. We always had to stay with our group and any outside movements had to be cleared by our program director and the hotel owners and/or Christina (I’ll talk about her later) ahead of time. It was a pretty major change, since we were all so accustomed to our freedom to move as we please around Managua, but it was really comforting to know that the program was doing everything in its power to keep us safe and that they’ve never had a security issue in the past. Ok… now that I’ve sufficiently scared all of your (sorry!) here’s a bit of what we did, broken down by day.

Thursday, October 18                                                                                                                                                                                                                     We hopped on a TACA (a Latin American airline) flight at 12:40 out of Managua and arrived in San Salvador (El Salvador’s capital) about an hour later (note: our plane had 12 rows… and propellers… I guess I was a little nervous!).We checked into the Oasis Hotel, an adorable little hotel that we had all to ourselves! The couple that runs it is absolutely wonderful and the women who work there became our Salvadoran moms for the week. Later that afternoon, we were visited by Carlos Garcia, a representative from Equipo Maíz, a local community and cultural organization, came and gave us a little lesson on the history of El Salvador from pre-colonization up through present times. After that we met Christina Starr, the woman who organized our entire program. She is originally from the States and came to El Salvador in solidarity with the peasants and indigenous being oppressed by the dictatorship prior to the war. That is actually not her real name; her work put her in danger, so she had to choose a new name for safety reasons. She has lived in San Salvador ever since and is in charge of coordinating our program’s excursion to El Salvador each semester. She’s also seriously awesome. Anyway we had a little orientation to El Salvador (fun fact: El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar. It was so weird seeing and handling U.S. money after spending so much time using córdobas) and then watched “Romero” in preparation for the next day. Archbishop Oscar Romero was the archbishop of El Salvador during the civil war and stood up for the poor people and activists being massacred by the army. He was eventually assassinated but he remains a national hero in El Salvador for his courage and desire to protect his people. Also that night, I felt my first earthquake! We were all up in our rooms when everything started to shake for a few seconds. When we all realized that we had just felt an earthquake, we ran outside with the rest of the hotel staff in case there were any aftershocks. Everything was fine, so we all went back inside. We checked online and found that there was a 4.0 earthquake with the epicenter in San Salvador. Nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, so it wasn’t such a bad introduction into the world of Central American earthquakes.

Friday, October 19                                                                                                                                                                                                                           We went to the Divina Providencia to see where Archbishop Romero lived and was assassinated. In the church where he was shot, we spoke to a nun who works there who told us more about his life and took us to his small house, which has since been turned into a small museum in his honor. After, we went to la Universidad de Centro América to see another museum dedicated to martyres of the civil war, many of whom were religious figures who spoke out against the violence perpetrated by the army against the people. That night, we were visited by Guillermo Cuellar, a national folk musician, who gave us a private concert in our hotel.

Saturday, October 20                                                                                                                                                                                                                      We began the morning with listening to the testimony of Damián Alegría, one of the owners of our hotel and current representative of the ruling FMLN party in the country’s General Assembly. We heard his experiences during the war, as well as some of the horrible human rights abuses committed by the army and the suffering of the people. In one case, his aunt was hiding with her infant from the soldiers, so she put her hand over the baby’s mouth to keep him from crying and giving away their location. When she removed her hand a few minutes later, she found that she had accidentally suffocated the baby. After the hotel, we went to visit the main cathedral in the center of San Salvador, which is where Archbishop Romero is buried. We left the cathedral and boarded our bus with bags in tow for the department of Cabañas to the north near the Honduran border. The place where we would be spending our next few days was much like the campo in Nicaragua: a small, rural, agricultural community with dirt roads and chickens. Lots of chickens. We arrived in the town of Victoria and had the option of hiking down to the town of Santa Marta through the hills and cornfields. It was absolutely beautiful and we could see into the mountains of Honduras during our hike. Unfortunately, the previous rainstorm left the trails really muddy and slippery and the combination of the mud with the rocks caused a little bit of a problem… my sandals broke! So my only other option was to continue the hike barefoot. When we got down to the part on the dirt/gravel road many of my friends shared their shoes with me and walked in barefoot solidarity. It was a beautiful moment. :-) We finally arrived at Santa Marta and were cooked a lovely and much-needed dinner by the woman whose house would act as our “home base.” We then were all split up into pairs to go meet our host families for the next two nights. Janet and I stayed with a husband (24 years old) and wife (21 years old) and their year-old baby girl. The baby was really cute, but alternated between being kinda shy and afraid of Janet and I and a bit aggressively playful (she kept trying to hit Janet with a little horse on a stick). While we were still in a campo region (i.e. latrines and dirt roads), this campo was a bit different from San Pablo in Nicaragua. Our house was made of brick and concrete and had real floors. In addition, our kitchen had a gas stove, rather than a wood-burning one. We were pretty exhausted that night and were both trying not to fall asleep while we watched a Mexican comedy movie that our family had on DVD.

Sunday, October 21                                                                                                                                                                                                                         We woke up and had an early breakfast with our family and then met up with the rest of the group to listen to Walter, a man from the community tell us about Santa Marta’s experience in the war. The town was invaded by the army in search of local guerrilla fighters. While there, the army killed and tortured the people of Santa Marta. They would pull out people’s fingernails, rape the women, and cut open the stomachs of pregnant women and use the fetuses for target practice. The people eventually escaped across the Lampa River to Honduras, where they lived in refugee camps (note: when the army saw many people crossing the river, they opened the dams and drowned many of the fleeing people). In 1987, though the war was still going on, many started to return to Santa Marta to rebuild the community that they had left behind. He also took us to see a tiny room that was dug into the side of a small hill that served as a makeshift hospital during the war. After we finished (many of use teary-eyed), we walked back for lunch and then talked with a representative from a grassroots development program about the future of Santa Marta. For dinner, our “mom” taught Janet and I how to make pupusas! Pupusas are practically the national food of El Salvador and are corn tortillas stuffed with various fillings. Ours were filled with beans and cheese and were served with a red salsa and were sooooo good!

Monday, October 22                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Today we said goodbye to our host families and drove up the hill to Victoria to work at Radio Victoria. Radio Victoria is a community radio station run by youth from Santa Marta. They play music and talk about issues that affect their community, such as health, education, and environmental issues. They have recently spoken out against Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company that is trying to open a mine in Santa Marta that could have devastating impacts on the environment and local water supply. Since then, many of the young people who work at Radio Victoria have received death threats, but they still continue their radio show. We had a chance to produce our radio show. I partnered with three others in our group to produce a short spot about el Día de la Mujer Rural (the Day of the Rural Woman) and express concerns about the state of rural women in El Salvador. Other presented news stories and other commentary and later we got to hear our voices as they aired on the radio! You can check out the radio station here. After we had lunch in Victoria and boarded our bus for San Salvador.

Tuesday, October 23                                                                                                                                                                                                              Tuesday morning we woke up early for a morning meeting with Kay Andrade at Catholic Relief Services about migration from El Salvador to the United States and the reasons behind it, including unemployment and lack of opportunities for high school graduates. From there we went to the house of Doña Beatriz for a lunch of delicious bean soup and a meeting with Jan Morrill from Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería, an anti-mining organization in El Salvador that opposes environmentally destructive mining projects. After lunch we returned to the hotel and met with representatives of COFAMIDE, an organization for families of disappeared migrants. That night, we went to the local movie theater for the premiere of documentary about a rural community and memories of the war. Since the movie ended late, we walked back to the hotel and ordered pizza delivery (another thing… places only do delivery until 9 PM there, since it’s too dangerous after then).

Wednesday, October 24                                                                                                                                                                                                    Wednesday morning we traveled to Equipo Nahual, a community-based violence reduction program that aims to reduce both isolated and gang-related violence in San Salvador. They partner with communities to improve resources for young people and work with gangs to reduce homicides and other violent attacks. From there we left for Suchitoto, a beautiful colonial town with cobblestone streets to the north of San Salvador. The town was ravaged by the civil war and has since looked to rebuild itself and heal from the destruction. We first visited el Centro Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace), a non-profit organization dedicated to alternative education, artistic expression, and the development and maintenance of peace. For one thing, I am so happy that we had this day in Suchitoto and the opportunity to visit this center. After nearly a week of such difficult and emotional themes, it was refreshing and (in my opinion) essential to spend some time in such a peaceful space. We first spoke with Sister Peggy, the center’s director. She is a nun who originally hails from New Jersey (she mentioned her love of pastrami sandwiches with brown mustard on rye!) and she gave us the best talk that I think we’ve ever had in this program. She has such a beautiful presence and explained the necessity for this center in the town. Sister Peggy continued with probably some of the best life advice I’ve ever heard. She’s incredibly progressive and encouraged us all to “pig out on life.” After so many days of heartbreaking stories, Sister Peggy’s sense of hope and inspiration was a breath of fresh air and I think it left all of us much more at peace with ourselves and the beautiful country. If anyone’s interested, you can find the center’s website here. Please consider making a donation, as they always need funds to pay art and music teachers and are looking to expand to serve more people. After, we got to explore the center a bit and then head into town. A few of us found our way to the dock with incredible views of Lake Suchitlán and the surrounding mountains. It was so hard to believe that such a beautiful sight was literally Hell for the townspeople just a few decades ago. We then wandered into the pretty downtown area to do some exploring before going to dinner at a really nice restaurant (I was lucky enough to sit next to Sister Peggy!). After dinner, we set out for the long bus ride home and I collapsed on my bed not long after returning to the hotel.

Thursday, October 25                                                                                                                                                                                                         Thursday morning we visited Las Dignas, a women’s and youth center in San Salvador to meet with a representative and learn about issues facing women in the country and efforts to promote gender equality, opportunities for young people, sex education, and many more. After we left for the campus of the Universidad de El Salvador (the city’s public university) where we were each paired up with a different university student from Santa Marta, who would be our guide for the day. I was paired with an English student named Cruz María and we spend the next five hours eating lunch and walking around the campus and the city. We got to watch a soccer game and then we visited Equipo Maíz and El Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (the Museum of the Word and Image). After, we all reunited at around 5:30 and we all went for dinner at a pupusa restaurant. That night, we wanted to spend some more time with our new friends, so we met them at a local café that has music at night and we spent the entire night dancing salsa and bachata.

Friday, October 26                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Friday was our last day in El Salvador. We had to wake up extremely early and load up all our stuff onto the bus before heading out to the National Assembly, the Salvadoran government building. We got to meet first with a representative of the FMLN party (the current ruling party and the party of the revolutionaries that just gained power in 2009) and ask questions about foreign policy, crime reduction, and development. After, we sat in on a solidarity meeting for the Cuban Five with the Cuban ambassador and the sister of one of the men still imprisoned in Miami. One of the girls in our group who was originally supposed to be on the SIT Cuba program before it was canceled at the last minute addressed the crowd and the ambassador addressed our group and thanked us for coming to study in Central America. After, we had our meeting with a representative from the ARENA party, the right-wing party that had been in power for 20 years prior to the 2009 elections. On the wall in the quite lavish conference room where we had our meeting was a picture with many members of the party. Oddly, several of them had black “X’s” over their faces. When I asked one of the women there why, she said that there had been a divide in the party and that some people had left it. It seemed a little eerie to see the marks on the faces like that. We asked this representative many of the same questions we asked of the FMLN representative and it was interesting to see how the answers differed. Once we finished, we got back in our bus and set out for the airport to catch our flight (also on a propeller plane!). When we finally arrived home to Managua, all our host moms prepared a little surprise party for us in the study center with food and cake to celebrate one of the student’s birthday.

Whew! Ok that was a veeery long post! I have to apologize but I haven’t been able to post any pictures. My camera of 6 years finally died so I didn’t have a functioning camera for the entirety of the trip. Luckily, so many other people took pictures so I will be stealing them and posting them to my Facebook album. I haven’t been able to do this yet, but it should be all set within a week or so. Be sure to look for them at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1869690821974.2045784.1232190724&type=1&l=9629e7f55e . Well, that’s all for now! ISP period is coming up pretty quickly, so I have to start preparing for that. I’ll be sure to let you all know as soon as I’ve finalized my study topic!

Too many gringos

Hello again!

I figured I’d try to get in one last post before I head off to El Salvador on Thursday. This past weekend, six of us decided to take a little weekend trip to Granada, a small, colonial, touristy city south of Managua. We hopped on a bus on Saturday morning and one hour and one dollar later, we were just outside the city center. We checked into our hostel for $8 for the night and set off exploring downtown. The first thing I noticed is that the city is filled with foreigners. I’m so used to our little group being some of the only gringos in Managua and other parts of Nicaragua, so it was a little surreal walking around and seeing so many people from the U.S. and Europe. The city is also remarkably clean. Managua tends to have a trash problem, but this city’s sidewalks were pretty nicely maintained and the buildings were done in a pretty colonial style. I was also lucky enough to call my family in New Jersey, where everyone was gathered for my cousin Thea’s wedding to her new husband, Jon. I was so sad that I couldn’t join them, but it was nice to at least call and say hi to everyone. One of the sadder parts of the city, however, are the street children. Several times an hour, little children would come up to us and ask for money. When a little boy approached us while we were eating lunch, we put some of our extra food into a napkin for him, but we were all hesitant to actually give money, since many street kids have a glue sniffing habit, which they use to help fight off hunger and consequently destroys their brains. It was pretty difficult seeing such young children begging on the streets, but in cases like this, it’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Later that night, we had dinner in the downtown area and then checked out the local nightlife before turning in to our hotel. We walked around a little more the next morning before getting back on our bus bound for Managua. As much as Granada was a nice little break from the normal, it was nice returning home to Managua, even though I had to step around a small garbage fire on the sidewalk as we walked through the bus terminal.

So I head off to El Salvador on Thursday morning. While I am there, I will not have access to my cell phone (it only works in Nicaragua) and I probably won’t have access to the internet. I return on the 26th, so I’ll be sure to write about my trip after then!

Some thoughts… also strikes

Hello folks!

Before my trip to El Salvador on Thursday, I just figured I’d share some thought I’ve had recently about living in Nicaragua for over a month (I still can’t believe it’s been that long). As I was walking to the bus stop to go to my first class the other day, I thought about everything I was doing and how everything I do on a daily basis seems normal, like it’s something I’ve been doing my entire life. I walk to the bus stop in the morning, avoiding the enormous gaps in the sidewalks where it’s like someone just forgot to fill in the space. I ride overpacked city buses and hold on for dear life. I drink orange and papaya juice out of plastic bags with a straw. Any meal that costs more than 100 córdobas (about $4) is just way too expensive. I haggle taxis down to 1o córdobas (less than 50 cents) each, because there is no way I’m paying 15 or 20 córdobas for a ride to Metrocentro (the mall). Everything I do here seems to weird when I write it all out or talk about it to someone back home. But when everything is actually happening, it just feels normal. Like my new normal. It’s amazing how quickly one can adjust to a new country, new norms, a new life.

Also, I didn’t have time to write about this before I went to the Coast, but there have been quite a few protests and strikes in the past few weeks. The first occurred on the same day I was supposed to go to a Pitbull concert. Pitbull was supposed to have a concert in Managua on September 28, so a bunch of us bought our tickets for $30 each. When we got there, we were informed that the concert had been cancelled at the last minute. Of course, we were all pretty upset and hoped that it would be rescheduled for before our trip to the Coast so we could still attend. Luckily it was rescheduled for two nights later, so we got to go and have an amazing time. Apparently, it had to be cancelled because there was a sugarcane plantation worker strike up near the border with Honduras, so the necessary equipment couldn’t get to Managua in time.

A little scarier and more recent was the taxi strike in Managua the day before we left for the Coast. We were told that morning that the majority of the taxi drivers in Managua were on strike. As we walked to our class that afternoon, we could see a plume of black smoke rising ahead from one of the protest sites. They were burning tires in the street. Later that evening, three of us walked to Metrocentro (about a 20 minute walk) to take some money out of the ATM for our trip. By the time we were ready to leave, it was already dark (it gets dark by 6 PM here). Normally this means we would take a taxi back, but then we remembered that the strike was still going on. After a quick call to the office coordinator, who told us we should be ok to walk home, we set out. Just outside the mall, we saw a taxi looking to pick up passengers, but we decided not to get in, since we didn’t know what the consequences would be if we were to run into a strike area. Thank goodness we didn’t get in. We later got emails from the US Embassy about the strike and saw the news reports. A taxi driver ran over and killed two police officers at a protest site. Also, striking taxi drivers were physically pulling people out of moving taxis that were still picking up passengers. Definitely one of those moments that reminds me how quickly things can change and how important it is to always keep your wits about you.

In other news, yesterday we got to look down a volcano and swim in the Laguna de Apoyo in Masaya. It was so beautiful and the water, like always here, was incredibly warm. I’m uploading pictures to my album, so you should check it out! http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1869690821974.2045784.1232190724&type=1&l=9629e7f55e

La Costa Caribe

Hello family and friends!

I just returned home from a very exciting week on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. For those of you who are not super familiar with Nicaraguan geography (which I’m assuming is most of you), Managua (where I’m based) is on the Pacific side of Nicaragua and the Caribbean coast area is on the other side of the country. It has a really interesting history because it is populated by mostly Creole/African descendants, Miskito, Garifuna, Rama, and Suma peoples. Also, it used to be a British protectorate, so most people speak Creole and English, in addition to Spanish. The indigenous people tend to speak their native languages as well.

We arrived at the study center at 4:30 AM  on Tuesday, Oct. 2 and boarded our microbus for the first leg of our trip. Totally exhausted we all tried to get a little bit of sleep  on the ride. Five hours later, we arrived in Ramas, where we boarded our panga (basically a long motorized canoe) for our ride to Bluefields along the Pearl Lagoon. About an hour and a half later, we arrived at our hotel for the night, a little sunburned and windswept. We put our bags in our respective rooms and sat down to a delicious lunch of rondon, a traditional Coastal dish made of fish, coconut milk, plantains, and other vegetables. After lunch, most of us totally passed out in our hotel room for a several hour nap. After we awoke, we decided to explore the downtown area before dinner. Exploring Bluefields, it felt like we were in a different country. It felt so weird to walk around and hear English, since I’m so used to constantly being surrounded by Spanish when out and about.

The next morning we set off by panga again to our respective communities. Six of us (including myself) went to Pearl Lagoon, which was about an hour away. The other seven of us went to Orinoco, a Garifuna community a bit further up the lagoon. We met up with Mr. Wesley Williams, our local coordinator and the owner of the guest house where we were staying. After we got settled in our rooms, we went over to meet Miss Cherry, the woman who would be cooking our meals. We sat down to an AMAZING lunch of shrimp in this coconut curry type sauce with freshly made pan de coco (coconut bread). That afternoon and the next day we sat down to 5 different charlas (informal lectures) with different community members and leaders to tell us about the challenges faced by the community and local programs dedicated to improving the lives of Pearl Lagoon’s citizens. They included someone from a wildlife conservation organization, the director of a local free private school, and a community representative who represents the territory in the autonomous coastal government. The next day we got the chance to spend the day with a local family. Paris and I were sent to the home of a woman who lives right on the water. It was actually her birthday, so I was very happy that I brought her a small bottle of MA maple syrup as a little hostess gift! We helped her make lunch, which was gallo pinto (rice and red beans) cooked in coconut milk with these little fried fish patties. Very yummy! Afterwards we walked around town with her and sat in on a parents meeting at the secondary school.

The next day the group from Orinoco joined us in Pearl Lagoon and we set off for a day at the Pearl Keys. We got into our panga and in about 20 minutes we had arrived at these beautiful private islands in the Caribbean Sea (we had to leave the lagoon to get there, so we were on the open water). Words cannot begin to describe how beautiful they were! We spent the entire day swimming in the water (which was incredibly warm!) and relaxing under the palm trees. A man on the island had some snorkel gear, so I went a little off the beach to look at some undersea life. I saw these enormous starfish that were at least a foot across. We returned to the mainland at 3:00, maybe more than a little sunburned.

The next morning we left Pearl Lagoon at 8:30, took a 2 1/2 hour panga ride to Ramas, and got in our waiting bus for our 5 hour ride back to Managua. We finally arrived back in Maximo Jerez in time for dinner. This is something that I’ve noticed since our trips to Ometepe and the campo: it feels so good to arrive home to Managua. The sense of relief I feel once I start seeing my familiar landmarks is pretty amazing, considering this country has only been my home for a little more than a month.

Next week, we are leaving for our final excursion to El Salvador on Wednesday, which I will be sure to write about once I get back! I have also uploaded all my photos from the last week to my Facebook album here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1869690821974.2045784.1232190724&type=1&l=9629e7f55e

 

I almost tripped over a chicken on my way to the latrine.

The title of this post is something I never thought I would utter. But I did. I just spend a week in the campo (the poor, rural, mountainous region of Nicaragua), and it was a week like nothing I had ever experienced before. Also, please excuse the scatter-brainedness of this post. I’m trying to include as much as I can without forgetting anything, so I might tend to jump around a bit.

We left Managua at 7:30 AM on Tuesday, September 18 on a 2-hour bus ride up to Matagalpa, a city to the north, near where we would be staying. We spent a couple of hours there, had lunch, and then got back into the bus for a short ride up to San Ramon, where we were divided up into our two groups. My program decided that it would be overwhelming for all thirteen of us to enter one community, so we were split into two groups and sent to different rural communities. SIT partnered with a community organization based in San Ramon that placed us with host families, so all we really knew about where we were going was the names and ages of our host family members and whether or not our homes had electricity or other amenities. So our group parted for six days (the longest we had ever been apart) and six of us set off for El Eden, while the rest of us (including me!) got into the truck bound for San Pablo.

When the truck dropped me off in the center of town, I was greeted by my mamá y my 16 year-old sister. They helped me carry my bags back to the house, where I was greeted by the rest of the family. When I first saw the house, my heart ached. The walls were made of sticks and mud. The roof was constructed of corrugated zinc. When I entered, I saw the dirt floors and the house reminded me of 17th and 18th century peasant homes that I’ve learned about in history classes. But this was the 21st century, and it was hard to believe that people still live like this. I was shown to my room, which was actually my sister’s room. She gave it to me for my stay so that I could have my own space while she shared a bed with her parents. The walls that divided my room from the rest of the house were made of oddly-shaped wooden boards and a small, translucent sheet hung from the gap acted as a door. My house was one of a few with electricity, so we had three light bulbs and a radio. We did not, however, have indoor plumbing. We had to use a latrine behind the house, which was definitely an experience. The smell was pretty horrendous and the flies and bugs only added to the ambiance. When I had to use it at night, I couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in a dark, enclosed, smelly box, so I often just left the door open. It was so dark that no one could see me anyways. We had a filtrón (a water purifier) in our house, so I always had clean water to drink. We also had a well with a pipe that led to a semi-enclosed area behind some trees. That’s where we filled a large bucket to wash dishes and to bathe.

The first night in the campo was a little overwhelming, to say the least. After the family killed one of the chickens for dinner, I tried to learn everyone’s name and relation. The people who lived in my house were: my mom (age 37), my dad (age 42), my abuela (age 85), my sister (age 16), and my brother (age 10). And while they didn’t live in my house, we were often visited by three of my younger cousins (age 5, 14, and 16). Almost immediately, my sister pulled out a big family photo album and showed me pictures from a bunch of family events and explained all the family members pictured.

The next morning, all seven of us were summoned to go on a tour/hike of the surrounding countryside. A group of jóvenes (young people), many of whom were our siblings and led by a 21 year-old, led us on a several hour hike through the rural wilderness and up to these spectacular outlooks. Often, several of the boys had to use their machetes to cut paths for us through the plants. Once we got up to the outlooks, the views were not to be believed. I felt like I could see the entire country from up there.

Later that day, my family informed me that I was invited to attend a wedding reception with them that night. My sister’s 18 year-old friend got married that morning and they were having a party at her family’s house later that night. I felt bad that I hadn’t brought along any fancy clothes, but I was told that people dress casually. I was surprised to see most of the wedding guests dressed in jeans and t-shirts when I arrived. My sister and I were served a plate of food and a piece of wedding cake when we arrived. I noticed that the bride and groom were the ones doing most of the running around and serving. It definitely made me think of the differences with wedding culture in the U.S., where typically brides don’t want to be responsible for constantly serving their guests on their big day. After eating, the couple pushed the two tables in the middle of the room aside and everyone started to dance. I danced with several partners, although there was definitely a big learning curve on my part as I tried to follow their feet with each new traditional dance.

We went on several more hikes throughout the week and the rest of the time was spent at home. My sister taught me how to grind corn and make tortillas, although mine were definitely not as good as everyone else’s. We also had to go wash our clothes in the river. The rest of the time was spent playing with some of the toys I brought for my younger cousins and trying not to accidentally step on the little chicks that ran freely throughout the house and front porch.

One of the other days the group of Nicaraguans took us swimming in a swimming hole that was part of a river. It had this incredible waterfall and a bunch of people were jumping into the water from a cliff about 25 feet high. So… I did it too! It was pretty scary and I almost chickened out, but I totally did it!!!! Irma took a video, so I’ll try to post that to Facebook ASAP!

On our last day we went on a slightly shorter, but still pretty challenging hike. We hiked to the top of this rock overlook and, although it was a little rainy, the view was still fantastic. For a good part of the hike, there was no trail, so a few of the young men had to cut through the grass to make our path. In some parts, the grass was taller than I was. I also had the unfortunate luck to step on a fire ant nest, so I got a nice little gift of an incredible amount of ant bites all over my ankles and legs. Not fun. But the hike and view were well worth it!

On our last night, the jóvenes threw us a little party with music and dancing. We were all pretty exhausted by the end of the night, since we weren’t really able to take any breaks from dancing before being asked to be someone’s partner again. At the very end, we were each asked to say a little about our experience, so of course I mentioned how much I was going to miss my sister. We both started crying, since we had gotten so close over the short period of time. Leaving the next day was pretty hard. She has a cell phone so we text every day. And since she goes to school on Saturday, she has access to Facebook and email, so I’m looking forward to sending her all the photos I took that week.

Ok so here are some things I just wanted to say but couldn’t find a place for (don’t say I didn’t warn you about being a bit scatter-brained!)

-       The campo accent can be SO HARD to understand! I never understood a single word my abuela said, and my mom was pretty hard to understand most of the time.

-       We ate rice and beans and tortilla for almost every meal. I don’t think I can ever eat beans ever again.

-       Clearly Nicaraguan bugs don’t care that I wore 98% DEET and slept with a mosquito net. I still came back covered with mosquito and ant bites.

-       It’s incredible just how generous people living in poverty still are. I was always served my meals first and I was typically given more than anyone else. My sister also tried to give me her earrings, but I politely declined.

-       We were there during the rainy season, so it rained nearly every afternoon. And when it rained, the “roads” turned into rivers of mud. All the campesinos could walk through it, but I definitely had some trouble…

-       There were farm animals everywhere! Just walking through the street you could casually wave to a cow or chicken or goat. This also meant that there was poop everywhere, so you really have to watch where you step!

Well that’s it for now! I’ll try to add more when I think of it. Also, I’ve decided to stop uploading photos to this blog, as it can take up to an hour for each picture to upload. Instead, I’m posting them all to a Facebook album. To access it, just follow this link: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1869690821974.2045784.1232190724&type=1&l=9629e7f55e

Hope everything is going well for everyone back in the States! I’ll try to keep posting stuff as it happens! Salud!

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