Week 1 NICARAGUA: Unfamiliar, yet déjà vu


Day 1

Friday, May 18, 2012

Managua, Nicaragua

Remember where you are

So much has happened this past week that I can’t quite believe it’s only been eight days since I touched down in Managua. Perhaps it is because I have already learned so much and travelled through so many different towns.

My first impression when I arrived in Managua was that it was oddly familiar. Somehow the little barrios surrounding the airport and the billboards and the general environment I encountered on the way to the hotel were so similar to the view I used to have on my way home from the airport in Manila, Philippines. Even the political slogans rivaled the ones we used to see during election season in Manila.  The most striking difference to Makati City was the lack of buildings, which I was told was the product of the 1972 earthquake that hit the capital here in Nicaragua the hardest.

Day 2

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tola, Nicaragua

Six Degrees of Separation

On my second day in Nica I met the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) director, Ramiro. He and his brother, Angel, picked me up. We made our way to a different town nearby to pick up the other intern, Dana Schoewe, who happened to go to the same university as me. In fact, we even knew some of the same people. The world is tiny. I couldn’t quite believe that she happened to choose the same summer session and town as me, out of the many programs and destinations that she could have chosen.  We chatted and watched the lush green pastures and the ever changing scenery as we made our way to Rivas, a bustling, regionally important town, to have some lunch.

After a hefty meal of rice and red beans we headed over to our final destination, Tola. There we met our International Programs Director, Steve and my first homestay family.

They did not waste any time either. We immediately started orientation at the FSD office in Tola.

Daily Anecdotes: Days 3-5

Sunday-Tuesday, May 20-22, 2012

Tola, Nicaragua

El Toro: You’re going to miss the train

For the next 3 days we had orientation all day. At night I would sit in rocking chairs, called “abuelitas” and talk to my host family and watch telenovelas with them. My host dad, self-proclaimed as “El Toro” (The Bull), couldn’t quite pronounce my name so he would either refer to me as “La Gringa” or “Colombiana”, kind of depending on his mood, or maybe my demeanor? Who knows.  El Toro definitely was a force. He liked telling me I should stay in Nicaragua and marry a Nicaraguan. My host mom would tell me what kind of Nicaraguan to marry. I would just respectfully decline the possibility of finding a husband in the next 9 weeks.

Still, El Toro told me I was going to miss the train, that as a 21 year old, I was already starting to get old and needed to have babies soon. I would just laugh awkwardly, praying the conversation would end soon. Yeah, one of the interns, who has already been here a couple of months, recommended making up a husband. I doubt it is actually going to be necessary, but it struck me how insistent the family was.

“I don’t want to owe anyone any favors”—Hardware shop small business owner

One morning before the orientation session they asked us to go up to random town dwellers to ask a couple of questions about life in Tola. I had to go back to the office to ask for tips on how to approach people because I was afraid that they would blow me off, saying something like, “Don’t waste my time, I have better things to do then answer your stupid questions”. I was so surprised at how willing people were to talk to me. I entered a hardware shop, anxiously (naturally), starting my pitch with, “I’m so sorry, but could I ask you a couple of questions? It’ll only take 5 minutes!” The man and his wife pulled out a chair and so started a 35 minute conversation about the Nicaraguan economy, life in Tola and the lack of purchasing power in the town. I asked why there weren’t more stores in town. They told me stores had opened and almost as if the next day closed again–because people just didn’t have the money to spend and when they did, they would go to Rivas. Rivas for the locals is like an experience. It is exciting and different. It is something they look forward to. Once in Rivas, people prefer just buying everything that they need at once.

I asked the small business owner what he hoped to see grow or improve in Tola. He told me they needed a better sewage system and drainage system. He was probably the only person I interviewed who actually hoped to see some changes in the town. A lot of people were like, “It’s fine.” It was almost as if they didn’t quite think about what could get better. Many depicted a degree of complacency in their condition, which seemed to be rooted in a lack of faith in the government.

The hardware store owner in particular talked about how the people who most got government benefits were usually not the ones who needed the extra resources to begin with, but rather those who chose to align themselves to a specific political party. I asked him if he pertained to a certain party. He shrugged and said, “Absolutely not, I don’t want to owe anyone any favors. Yes, there are benefits, but I rather not live owing anyone anything, constantly”.

That really struck me. The corruption that he discussed. The lack of hope for improvement. The disappointment in the use of resources and the growth of the economy. Nicaraguans are vibrant and friendly and great communicators, but many of the ones I encountered in Tola definitely did not have high hopes for the future, and that was very hard for me to witness.

“What do you mean, you don’t eat no meat? That’s fine, I’ll make lamb.”

Who remembers that quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Both times I told my house moms that I didn’t eat meat, they were not happy. They were like, “You don’t eat pork? Or beef? Or chicken?!” My only consolation was that I eat fish. They had no idea what to feed me. My first homestay mom, “Mama Yolanda”, didn’t understand the concept of eating vegetables very well. In fact her family owned a butcher shop…awkward. She would shudder every time she gave me a plate without meat. She would give me rice and beans and avocado or boiled plantains. One day she told me she made me a lot of vegetables, which consisted of tapioca (yuca), pumpkin and plantains. Pretty much all root vegetables, but vegetables nonetheless! My second host mom, (my current host mom)—and yes, I’m skipping forward to day 6 by saying this—told me something very interesting. The region I’m living in right now is primarily farmland where meat is more readily available and in a certain sense cheaper to provide.

We went to a bakery for lunch one day and ordered a vegetarian pizza. It had ham. Apparently, some people here are of the belief that ham is not meat, or in some way vegetarian. The baker told me she couldn’t imagine what else to put on the pizza. Our director suggested peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms–the standard veggies you see on pizzas in other countries, but it seemed quite foreign. Both my families, in Tola and Limón Dos, don’t quite enjoy eating veggies. They eat some tomatoes, the occasional cabbage and carrot salad, but otherwise they said they preferred just eating rice, beans and meat. Of course this isn’t a rule, but it was definitely quite a prevalent answer, even outside those two families. It did surprise me a bit, however, considering how many vegetable stands I passed by in Tola and Rivas.

Day 6

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Limón Dos, Nicaragua

Meet the Family

On Wednesday I arrived at my new home for the next 9 weeks in Limón Dos. A small, rural town on the Pacific Coast of  Nicaragua. It has a population of about 500 people and I could not find it on Google Maps before traveling over here, so you can imagine how remote it is. One thing that puts this town in the international limelight is its surfing competitions and the luxury resort complex a kilometer away called Rancho Santana.

The way over here from Tola was an adventure in itself. We climbed on a yellow open-air school bus that was incredibly resistant to many obstacles I foresaw through the little window by my seat. The bus was so crowded, they threw my luggage on the roof of the bus. People were sitting on top of each other on the chairs, people were even standing up butt-to-butt , holding on to little railings attached to the roof of the bus. For an hour and a half the bus climbed up and down mountains, miraculously  made its way through little, raging rivers and pool-sized puddles. The scenery changed five times over in the 90 minutes that I sat, contemplating this summer life that was only just beginning. It was quite the charming but stuffy experience.

My home stay house is actually very serene and beautiful. The house is a brilliant, bright orange with white railings. They have a cute little cat, (which I congratulate every time I find it playing with a rat). Thankfully the rats aren’t the big, hairy creatures I’ve seen in Miami. These rather resemble more Ratatouille, yes, from the Pixar movie, Ratatouille. They also have three well-fed and groomed dogs, lots of chickens, annoying roosters, which can’t quite figure out when dawn is and quite a few muddy pigs and piglets. This is kind of the reason why I can’t bring myself to eat meat, I basically live with the animals now, I can’t just eat them, too.

The family is sweet. The father, and two brother-in-laws don’t talk to me very much, which I heard is quite standard in these parts. I have no idea why. I don’t want to ask. My house mom, Mama Maria, has quite a strong personality. Her sarcasm is hard to identify sometimes. It scares me, just a little. But I know she is a good and caring person, of that I am certain. I also have three “sisters”. Shayanara, Gretel, and Linda. They are all very kind, but a little serious, like their parents I suppose. Lastly, Shayanara’s daughter Brittany. A cute, chubby, little 2-year-old who loves to grab hold of my thighs and stand on my feet.

Puertas del Saber–Limón Dos Library

My sanctuary for the next 9 weeks. Puertas del Saber means the Doors of Knowledge. The library is a small room perhaps the size of two standard house bathrooms. Although the inventory says that it contains 699 books, it looks more like 100 books because a lot of the books are very thin, containing four or five informational pages. Although the walls are filled with little paintings and photos of the kids, it lacks light and life. The library still does not have a lending system. It lacks crucial materials needed by the kids for their school research papers. It has little to no resources for adults. There is definitely a lot of work to be done. But it is a library nonetheless and more importantly it has people with high hopes for it.

“Buy an aspirin, place it between your inner thighs, shut your legs and hold on to it tightly.”- CARITA Doctor

My first project-related event was on Wednesday. It was the health fair and Mother’s Day celebration. It was hosted at the library complex where I will be working the next 9 weeks. Some doctors came over from Managua and Rivas to talk about HIV/AIDS and to conduct HIV tests, pap smears, ultrasounds and prostate checks.

A doctor representing CARITA, a Catholic health organization, presented information on HIV. She used a Mexican informational video from 1994. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it sufficed, considering it was almost 20 years old, which is like a century in medical terms. I suppose most of the information it presented was still accurate, but I couldn’t help thinking that the people deserved something a little less dated.

I thought she provided a lot of good information but I didn’t enjoy the way she presented it. There was a young local man in the audience who asked her why she didn’t mention condoms as a form of prevention. She played off the young man as crazy, diverted the question to whether he had been tested recently. She sent him out of the room to get tested and then mentioned how she had schizophrenic HIV patients in her hospital in Managua, “like him“. Yes, the young man had unkempt hair, wasn’t wearing a shirt, but you could tell he had probably just come from the ocean. After all, we are in a surfer, beach town.

She mentioned that HIV screening was “the best form of prevention”. She advised the women to refuse to sleep with “unfaithful husbands”. She whispered something about condoms, but didn’t really enunciate the words. She continued on to tell them to buy a pill of aspirin and to stick it between their legs and then just hold on tight, making sure the pill never fell. That comment kind of repulsed the small group of interns I was sitting with. We all kind of mumbled in disbelief. It was good that none of us stated our opinion of her presentation in front of all the locals when she singled us out saying, “And you Gringos, what did you think of this presentation?”

Mothers day isn’t really a day in Nicaragua, it’s more like a month.

After the health fair the kids performed some poetry, a song and a skit dedicated to their moms. The moms sat in the audience with babies and the younger toddlers. Even our primary donors from Rancho Santana, a nearby luxury complex, came by to bring water filters for the library and to see the new library complex that is being built, supposedly to open and fully function by June 20.

The three Americans from Rancho Santana were very kind. Mentioned that they had a  box of books that they would bring by next week to add on to our small collection of 699 books. Rancho Santana also donates US$100 for monthly events like the Mother’s Day celebration.

At the end of the short Mother’s Day celebration they gave out orange cake and a chocolate-cornmeal sweet refrigerante that was packed in little plastic bags. I was told that the number one rule in this town for hosting events was to include a small merienda at the end. No event could take place without it.

These little things one must learn along the way….

“Let’s see if we can travel together”- Mama Maria

After my first day, I got back home to a church service. It was my “dad’s” birthday and so the family decided to hold their church’s daily service on their porch. It lasted a good two hours and included a lot of singing. It was a little shrill but it was an experience. I got a taste of how religious the community is. The town is known for having two very strong and influential evangelical churches. They hold daily service and church attendance is high.

Mama Maria at first didn’t quite know whether she’d like me. She didn’t know what to cook for me. In fact, every time she gave me a meal she would stare at me intently looking for my reaction. Thankfully I really liked her cooking and so each time I liked something she cooked she’d say to me, “Well, we’ll go from here”. It took me a little while to realize that “travel” to her was more like, “Let’s see if I can figure out what you like and make that for you”. Thankfully, we managed to find common ground and get along now. The first hours of our relationship were shaky, though. I’ll admit that.

Day 7

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Limón Dos, Nicaragua

So much to do, so little time.

Today I set out to the library to talk to the reading promoter, Ruth, and to talk to the librarian, Mayra. Both are great but after two hours of hearing about their successes and their struggles, I was a little overwhelmed. There are so many  important resources missing. There is no organization whatsoever. They admitted to not having any control of the kids. They would just run freely and play in the park behind the library. Attendance was decreasing. They depended on the supervisors, Sonia and Steve. They talked about a lack of feedback from them. About books from Managua that they were promised but were yet to be given. About a program schedule that they were promised but  were never given. So today I faced their reality.

You have to keep the lights off.

So the first night, Dana, who stayed with me on Wednesday night, and I learned the hard way not to keep lights on at night. Strange right? But necessary. Thursday night I made sure to keep the lights on no more than 30 seconds to tidy everything up before going to bed because if not the insects pop out of nowhere. These are especially annoying bugs because most of them only live for 24 hours and a couple have already died and planted themselves in my hair. It’s brilliant, really. I need to find a better way to “dust them off'”. But hey! They’re harmless right? They make work at night hard, though. They love the computer light. Better for me though, I am asleep by 9 pm or even before, which I don’t think I’ve done since I was 12. So it’s good for the soul. I also wake up by seven-thirty in the morning. A good three hours after the rest of my family.


One response »

  1. Lots of interesting and very informative stories and experiences! It is so wonderful to read and so well written that one can actually well imagine life in that part of the world. Keep up your blog as it is so fantastic to read, love you dad & mom

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