>> Friday, December 21, 2007
We'd like to talk about our trip home but Neil Diamond said it so eloquently that we would sound barbaric compared to his sweet lyrics.
We can't wait to see our family and friends!
We'd like to talk about our trip home but Neil Diamond said it so eloquently that we would sound barbaric compared to his sweet lyrics.
We can't wait to see our family and friends!
My parents came to visit last week and it was really nice (for Holly and me at least). They were only here for five days so we spent the first few in and around Masaya and then went to Selva Negra in Matagalpa for a change of scenery. Here are some pictures from the trip:
My dad made friends with all of his Coca Cola brothers in Nicaragua by giving them free pens… it was a nice gesture and only a little awkward for the translators:
Somehow we tricked them into taking the busses… waiting by the side of the road provided a lot of quality family time:
Coyotepe is an old fort that is on a big hill overlooking Masaya. During the Somoza years and then during the first few years of Sandinista rule it was used as a torture chamber for political prisoners. Suffice it to say that countless people have died there. to show our contrition we took a happy family photo on top of it:
Selva Negra is a really cool organic farm/hotel/restaurant/forest in the mountains of Matagalpa. Everyone was a little surprised by the cold but it was really pretty the whole time.
It was a pretty short trip but nice to show my parents that we don't live in absolute squalor and just to catch up in a way that isn’t really possible over the phone. Also, thanks to my parents we’ve worked all of the kinks out of the schedule and should be able to provide a vomit-free experience for all future travelers.
I always hated that John Goodman movie but for some reason I ended up watching it a lot when I was a kid. I blame a certain mean-spirited older sister because now all of my worst fears are coming true. Today as I was cleaning the house a little bit I found a spider in one of our concrete-block walls and thought it looked dead. Just to be sure Holly poked a spoon in one end to nudge it towards the outside world. It didn’t take the hint and we had to go on a spider hunt throughout the house.
Even though it was so close to the outside it chose to come back in and headed straight for the bed which just meant that we had no choice but to destroy it by any means necessary. Unfortunately the most powerful weapon at our disposal is the size 12 running shoe so it was pretty difficult. This tarantula was really fast so we when we finally chased him from behind the bed he went straight for the lavandero and hid behind it where we couldn’t reach. At this point it was a waiting game and, thanks to summer vacation, we were committed to sleep near the sink with one eye open in order to catch her. Luckily she moved first and we got a preliminary blow and forced her to drop her giant sack of eggs she was hauling around(after which dozens of little spiders were released but were easier to catch than the mama). Finally, Holly administered the lethal strike with my Chaco (next time we'll be more prepared with nail guns and molotov cocktails like in the movie).
For now we’re spider-free but we might have really angered the entire next generation of blood-thirsty tarantulas. I think I’ll give away my Chacos and try to blame the whole thing on a neighbor just to avoid any revenge smashings.
P.S. Mom & Dad - We're looking forward to your visit! Don't worry, this only happens once a month or so.
We've been in Managua all week for Peace Corp Nicaragua's annual All Volunteer Conference. We had all sorts of interesting sessions and definitely enjoyed the great food and hot water! Now we're off to US Ambassador Paul Trivelli's house for Thanksgiving dinner, so I'm optimistic that we won't be missing out on the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and all the fixins'.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
This post may not be of much interest to our friends and family, but as we were preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, we obsessively Googled “Peace Corps Packing List” in hopes of finding out exactly what to bring. We did find a lot of lists online, but very few were from Latin America and none were from Nicaragua. Additionally, even though we found a lot of lists, we never knew if people were happy with the things they brought, only that they were planning to bring them.
We’ve had a couple of perspective volunteers ask if we have packing suggestions, so we decided to look back at our packing lists and see what we brought that we’re glad we did, what we wish we brought that we didn’t, and what we should have sold at the garage sale. This annotated list includes only the items that we think are worth commentary; our full lists of what we actually brought can still be found here and here.
Don’t Leave Home Without It
In Nicaraguan schools, the closest you can get to a homecoming assembly is an acto. Actos lack the spirit wars and funny skits of the assemblies I had in high school, but they have a charm all their own. I recently experienced my first acto in for the Día de Raza (Day of Race) that is sort of a celebration of diversity and Nicaraguan culture.
Here are all the students standing in the auditorium area at the beginning of the acto . They all start off standing in very straight lines with their classmates, but the assembly can last longer than an hour, so eventually the lines sort of blur as students get tired. You can also sort of see the backdrops including Nicaragua’s national flower, the Old Market, and what I think is Coyotepe, an old prison on top of a hill. All actos have the same common elements: first, they begin with the singing of the national anthem and also have some sort of patriotic recitation, usually a poem by favorite Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dário. Also a required part of any good acto is folklórico dance. This particular assembly had four folklore dance groups. Next, reggaeton dancing. This is usually fairly scandalous dancing and is a big hit with all the students: There were also several groups of students that would sing and play the guitar to the other popular music genre, romántica. For the finale of the acto, these two first-year students danced. They were probably the best dancers in the whole group, but, I must admit, their dancing offended some of my sensibilities regarding what’s appropriate for 7th graders to do anywhere, let alone at a school assembly. I took a video of them dancing, but it’s a little inappropriate to show here, so I'm just posting a picture: After the assembly concluded, each class went back to their classroom to feast on a traditional Nicaraguan dish they had prepared. My class, first-year D (each section is lettered), chose to serve vigorón and Coca-Cola:Vigorón consists of yuca (like a more fibrous version of a potato), chicharón (pork rinds), and ensalada made of beets and cabbage. Sorry the picture is blurry; I was excited to eat!
A group of girls enjoying their vigorón at 10:30 am.Finally, Here’s some of primero D with my counterpart, Francis, and me. This isn’t everyone in the class, only those that volunteered to stay and help clean up.
Since we live in a capital city close to Managua, we’re lucky enough to have other volunteers visit frequently enough. What has begun to trouble us, however, is the number of uninvited guests that have come into our house. Some are so unwelcome yet so persistent that we have to scrape them off of our shoes to get them out the door. Others behaved themselves well enough that we don’t mind keeping them around.
When we first moved in, we were surprised to see that some cucarachas were already living above our lavendero:I don’t know what this bug is, but it was pretty big:We saw a chicken walking around on our patio one day and it stumbled inside so we shooed it out, but then it started raining and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. We shut the doors to keep him out, but apparently the crack under our door is big enough for a small, determined chicken to squeeze his way through. Since we couldn’t do much about it, we just let him chill in a cardboard box until the rain subsided. He was pretty cool, so I’d consider letting him come visit sometime if there weren’t the risk that someone would accuse us of harboring a stolen chicken.Perhaps the most disturbing visitor made it through the mosquito net to creep around in bed. We saw him running across the sheets but even after taking apart the bedroom in a desperate search effort, we couldn’t track him down. One day when we weren’t expecting him we saw him up near the ceiling in a crevice:The only guest that we have had to… “dispose of” is the tarantula that we saw crawling around under our hammocks. Luckily we weren’t in them and my rush of adrenaline was accompanied by good aim to kill it from afar. We were too skittish to take the picture while he was alive so we waited until we knew he couldn’t get us. As a result, this picture is a little nasty, so click the link if you’re brave enough and don’t have a meal in your recent past or future.
There haven’t been any major catastrophes, but the bugs here are certainly much healthier, bigger, and more plentiful than they were in Missouri. And don’t think that just because we have lots of bugs that our house is especially dirty or bug-inviting; even the nicest houses have their share of cockroaches. We just assumed that like the chavalos, the bugs are interested in their new gringo neighbors and want to stop by and see how they function in their natural domestic habitat. Oh well, at least it forces us to have a clean house just in case an unexpected visitor drops by.
As part of the weekly fiestas patronales in Masaya, we heard that San Jeronimo, the patron saint of Masaya, would be paraded through the city along with another saint, San Miguel. I have asked several people why San Miguel comes along; I didn’t really understand the explanations I received, so I just assume that Miguel is like Jeronimo’s sidekick. Anyway, the Sunday of the procession was very rainy, so Paul and I decided to skip the cultural event in the central park and stay home. School was canceled the next day, so Paul was in Managua and I was home by myself when suddenly I was startled by a loud cheer outside. Okay, okay, I was taking a nap when it happened, but I was still jolted awake because far more than the normal few conversation were happening on our corner.
I went outside and asked a neighbor what was going on, and he told me that it was the procession of San Jeronimo throughout the entire city of Masaya. I was confused because I thought the procession was the day before. It turns out it was—the procession began on Sunday at 8:00 am and was still going strong Monday at 11:00 am. San Jeronimo begins his parade at the San Jeronimo church and then walks down every street in Masaya with marching bands and “groupies” following him all the while. The loud cheer was because sidekick San Miguel’s float had just passed; fortunately, I was just in time to see San Jeronimo.
Here you can see why I was alarmed with all the noise: the street was packed like this up and down our entire block. People were also taking a lot of liberties with our porch, but at least no one came inside. Fortunately, I could stand out on the porch to watch the procession so I had plenty of room and a good escape route when it started to rain. I also eventually made friends with some of the chavalos perched on the porch, and they were kind enough to hold my umbrella over the camera and me so that the camera wouldn’t get wet while I snapped pictures. Here is San Jeronimo approaching our house. San Jeronimo himself is perched on a float made of flowers and other greenery. The flowers are a little wilty but that’s probably because 1) this was taken at about hour 25 of the procession; 2) it was pouring and had been raining for much of the previous 25 hours; and 3) when the float passed, a lot of people reached up and stole a few flowers for a souvenir.Here are the guys carrying the float along the road; it looks really heavy! When it’s time for the float to be moved, a group of guys pick up the float by wood beams along the bottom, carry him along a little way, then set him down again.Here a guy is changing San Jeronimo’s outfit; someone in the crowd had crocheted a new hat, cape, and flowered skirt (?) for him, so this guy was the official clothes-changer (In case you’re wondering, Jeronimo was sporting a nice pair of orange boxer shorts underneath). People also liked to hand their children up to this guy and he would pose them near the Saint for a picture.As soon as San Jeronimo and the bands passed, the crowd dispersed and all was quiet again. I fear I’m becoming spoiled by all the festivals here; not only is there a parade or event every weekend, but now I don’t even have to leave the house to see them.
Normally this isn’t my sort of thing. I think that months are generally benign, and besides, what good can one strongly-worded letter accomplish? However, I hope that my words strike a chord with you because honestly, I’m getting a little tired of your antics. In the US, I am largely indifferent to and sometimes even welcoming of your presence. You change the colors of the leaves and almost always (with the exception of 1994, for which you can hardly be blamed) bring playoff baseball. Sure it gets a little colder anywhere north of the great state of Miami when you’re around, but at least it’s gradual.
In Nicaragua, however, you’re really annoying. You bring rains and not just any rains. These are not only biblical, but also spur-of-the-moment, didn’t-see-it-coming rains. Besides that, you can’t even be content with everything being wet while it’s raining. Nope, instead you seem to take sadistic glee in flooding the streets and creating disease-filled puddles in which to get wet even when the clouds take a temporary break to recharge. Moreover, it is almost impossible to do laundry when you’re around because 1) it’s almost always raining and 2) when it’s not, it’s cloudy with the threat of rain so the clothes don’t dry and sometimes even get moldy. I think even you can admit that this is a little unsporting.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm unwilling to compromise. For example, I rarely need to go outside at night, so why don’t you take a little time to plan the rains around human schedules. We are, after all, living in a fairly anthropocentric era, and it wouldn’t hurt you to take notice. I urge you to deposit large amounts of rain in la madrugada in order to leave the daytime relatively clear. If you are going to bring rain during the day, which I accept as inevitable, at least make it pretty obvious before I leave the house. No more of this sudden raining while I’m in the middle of a journey, ok?
Thanks for your time and for considering my humble requests.
A few weekends ago we went to Matagalpa in the north to visit some friends. The city of Matagalpa is cool—we went to a nice coffee shop and I tasted good coffee for the first time in 6 months and afterward we tracked down the source of the coffee and I bought a huge 500 g bag for 30 córdobas (about $1.50). Afterward we went to a grocery store with peanut butter and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. (Never before in my life have I been so deeply concerned with the offerings of grocery stores, but here it becomes sort of a scavenger hunt and because I’m interested in it, I assume that you must be also. I apologize if that isn’t the case. I’d be pretty bored too if everyone wrote to me to tell me about the new grocery store in the US that has everything you could possibly want to buy. But I digress.) After lunch at a real Italian restaurant we made our way to the outskirts to see a real-life chocolate factory!
This chocolate factory is pretty small and doesn’t have any Willy Wonka-style security precautions. There were some short people running around, but I’m pretty sure that they were just children and not oompa-loompas. We just walked up to the gate and even though the owner insisted that he was gardening and not giving tours, he eventually relented after hearing that we were Peace Corps volunteers. Maybe because he felt that we looked underfed or maybe because he was really nice, he gave us tons of free samples during the tour, sometimes even opening up new candy bars just so we could try a bite of the “old recipe.”
The owner is an extranjero (foreigner) but the chocolate is pretty Nicaraguan. It uses cocao and coffee from all over the country and it’s made by hand in Matagalpa. Here are some pictures from the trip:
This is the cacao before it gets smashed up:
Here they crack the cacao by hand to begin the process of separation:
Here’s Holly and me on top of the castle:We all felt pretty giddy in the presence of so much chocolate:
After we were done and we had bought a 2-month supply of sweet sweet rations, we made our way to Nicole’s very small, very rural site. It was raining, and sometimes there aren’t many buses passing by. This was one of those times, so the bus that we took looked something like this:
Yeah, those are people riding on the roof. When our bus came, that would have been the only option, but the cobrador opened up the back door and yelled, “Make room for the gringos!” Never before had I felt so guilty and privileged, but I wasn’t about to ride on top of a bus on a terrible road for more than an hour to assuage my guilt. Instead, we were lucky enough to be crammed into the bus with no room to move. It was a fun trip and it was nice to see more of Nicaragua, but by the end of the weekend, we were ready to come back to running water, less erratic electricity, and a real toilet. On Sunday when we finally got back to Masaya after riding on bumpy, slow buses for five and a half hours we jumped in our hammocks and both thought to ourselves, “There’s no place like home.”
At first, I was really disappointed that I was going to be a teacher in a place that doesn’t have snow days, the cold days where you get to stay at home, watching TV, and drinking hot chocolate. Little did I know that Nicaragua has an even better idea: rain days.
I had heard that school is canceled when it’s raining, but we had never actually experienced it until Tuesday afternoon. There have been plenty of days when it’s been raining, of course, but apparently there are a lot of unspoken rules about what does and does not constitute a rain day: first, it needs to be raining about 30 minutes before school starts, which is the time everyone is normally going to school. It’s rained lots of times around 3 or 4 o’clock, but by that time everyone’s already at school, so there’s no point in canceling it since everyone would get wet going home anyway. Second, it has to be raining hard. Little sprinkles or even the threat of really dark clouds isn’t enough to earn students and teachers a day of freedom. It also has to be the type of rain that’s going to last all afternoon, not just a brief shower that’s going to pass. I think there are probably other unspoken rules that we still don’t know, but I guess we have two years to figure it all out.
On Tuesday morning (school was already canceled Monday, remember, to allow a day of recovery from Masaya’s festivities over the weekend and is also canceled this Monday for the same reason) it started raining really hard at about 10:30 with no sign of stopping. I’m not going to lie; Paul and I were a little eager for our first rain day, but when the rain stopped at about 12:00, we both got ready to go to school. I decided to walk to school since the rain had cooled everything off, but of course it started pouring again when I was just far enough that it was pointless to turn back or take a cab. I arrived at school before my 1:00 class, but it became obvious that it was a rain day because there were about half a dozen professors and maybe 20 students there. I think this is sort of a chicken-or-the-egg situation; the teachers say they don’t come when it’s raining because the students don’t, but the students say they don’t come because no teachers do. Either way, they never even rang the bell for classes to begin. Those of us that were silly enough to come to school pretty much waited around until the rain let up to go home, and I also wanted to wait until my two classes would have been over just to make sure that neither of my afternoon counterparts would come and think I was lazy for not going to school (they never came). I made it home around 2:30 during a brief break in the rain and discovered that Paul had had the exact same experience at his school. Even though the idea of a rain day (presumably) is to allow everyone to say dry, there were plenty of neighborhood chavalos who took advantage of the day to go swimming:
And more chavalos that took the opportunity to dispose of some unwanted trash:
Wednesday was more of the same: it started raining a little before noon and really didn’t let up until after 3:00. Paul and I decided that we shouldn’t go to class since we doubted anyone else would be there (chicken or the egg?) and just enjoyed an afternoon at home reading while it rained. I’m not exactly sure if there is rain day etiquette regarding two rain days in a row, but I guess we’ll find out this afternoon when we go to school. That is, of course, unless it starts to rain.
UPDATE: Without a cloud in the sky this afternoon, Paul and I both went to school. Yesterday, Paul's counterpart didn't go to school at all, and mine both went, but there weren't enough students to have class. So it turns out we didn't miss anything and we didn't have to get wet.
Last weekend we went with to la alborada (I don’t know how that translates). It’s a nominally religious festival for San Miguel, and for that reason it was at Iglesia San Miguel in Masaya. We were originally attracted by the prospect of people climbing a greased-up tree to get a prize. When we got there, though, we were pretty surprised to find out that it was also a fireworks show. I feel like we talk a lot about fuegos artificiales, but they're pretty invasive and a pretty consistent theme to life here (for example I heard some go off as I was writing that sentence). Fireworks in Nicaragua are scary because they’re mostly homemade and would most certainly be outlawed in at least 45 states in the US. There are a few types—the one most frequently encountered is one that goes into the air and makes a lot of noise. Then there’s the rare one that goes into the air and makes noise along with some colors and lights. The loudest one is a ground-rumbling firework that can be heard miles away. The final is one that you put into a torro (bull) hat and then use to chase after people:
Last weekend was the hípica in Masaya and it’s a pretty big deal. Hípica is a horse parade, and it’s pronounced more like eeeepeeeca. Every city has one eventually, and Masaya’s is usually one of the biggest. There were over 1000 horses here from all over the country (Holly says there were fewer, but no one counted so we'll just go with 1000). These aren’t the ordinary caballos that you see every day hauling carts and coaches around the city. No no no, these are special horses—caballos de raza—whose main function in life, as I understand it, is to go to hípicas and be cool.
We had really good seats for the parade—right next to a booze station where the riders could pull up and grab a can of Toña for the road.
An unintended consequence of our front-row seats, however, was that we almost got trampled a few times by runaway horses. The horses seemed pretty overwhelmed by all of the activity. Either that or they’d gotten a few Toñas along the way also. See if you wouldn’t be just a little freaked out:
Guys in trucks provided some music. Sometimes there were two trucks really close playing competing tunes. This was unfortunate. And loud.
Toña float and the semi-famous Toña girls:
The most entertaining part of the whole parade was this guy, though. He came up to our tent and was showing off his skills with the spinning top (it's like the Nica yo-yo). He did a few tricks and when he couldn't spin it on his toungue (to the dismay of the guys yelling "en la lengua!") he just decided to dance a little bit:
That's about it for the hípica. We liked it so much that we're going to try and to the one in Jinotepe in a few weeks.
This week for some reason it has been raining a ton. Yesterday afternoon as I was riding my bike home from school, the roads had nearly all been converted into tiny little rivers, and every bus and taxi that passed put the fear into me that I would end up not only tired and wet, but tired and soaking wet with muddy, gross water.
Luckily I was able to wait out the rain in the Telecentro while Holly was giving her evening English class and we walked home together afterward with just wet feet. We got home and as soon as we walked in the door it started pouring again and didn’t stop until this morning. Our house is really comfortable now—it’s nice to cook on our own and not have to eat gallo pinto 14 times a week. Even last night as the power went out while we were cooking we just got out our headlamps and finished dinner in the dark.
Thanks to everyone who has sent packages—it is always a bright spot in our week to open up the package and go through all the things we didn't know we couldn't live without. Catching up on 3-week-old news or munching on Peanut Butter M&Ms can be surprisingly therapeutic and calming.
We don’t want to seem like we’re begging for people to send us stuff, but a lot of people have been asking what we need or want sent to us, so it’s probably easier to list some things that we can never have too much of:
Really, any good food that we can make on the stove (we don’t have an oven or microwave) is highly welcomed.
One lesson we learned from Danny’s awesome package was not to send cheese dip… after sitting in quarantine for a week, our Fritos cheese dip was confiscated and “destroyed” (though we suspect some customs agent somewhere is probably enjoying chips and dip as we speak). But don’t let that deter you! :) Every other package we’ve gotten has arrived quickly and completely unharmed.
To pass the rainy days and long weekends, we’ve been reading just about everything we can get our hands on, so you can be sure that you’ll never again find such a desperate and captive audience upon which to thrust your favorite books. Or if you’re not tempted by this opportunity for cheerfully-consumed propaganda, we also have a wish list of things we really want to read.
We also just realized that we’ve been spelling our address wrong all along… it actually is:
Apartado Postal #59
The advice we've received and learned through trail and error about packages is that padded envelopes are less likely to be opened and searched than boxes. Also, USPS is the best way to send anything; any other way is really expensive and we have to go to Managua and hassle with customs if it's not sent through the regular mail.
Obviously, we also always love receiving e-mails and blog comments to let us know what you’re all up to and how you’re doing at home. Finally, if anyone wants to save money on postage and just hand-deliver a package, we’re more than happy to share our hammocks and care package goodies with you!
Last Friday was Nicaraguan Independence Day. To celebrate, there was a huge desfile (parade) in Masaya with all the schools represented by their marching bands.
First, these girls were the beginning of my school's group in the parade. INJOCRUM is the nickname for my school: Instituto Nacional José de la Cruz Mena.
This is the band marching to the stadium to begin the festivities. The band lined up to go from our school through town, and we just walked on the street taking up the entire road. My school is on a one-way street, so all the cars, taxis, and horse-drawn buggies that were driving down the road had to follow slowly behind the group (honking all the while) until they could find a side street detour. No one in the band seemed even remotely concerned that we were stopping traffic on one of the biggest streets in the city.
Finally, after waiting in the stadium for about two and a half hours with every school and band in (what seemed like) the entire department of Masaya, they began the festivities. People in the podium announced each school including the names of the directors and sub-directors, the number of students, the number of teachers, the number of band members, and a lot of other information I really didn't understand. Then each band paraded out of the stadium while playing to begin the actual parade through the town. This is part of the in-the-stadium parade (my school was dead last to be called, so we did a lot of standing around in the baseball stadium). I'm not sure what these instruments are called, but they my favorite part of the band. The kids who play them always have complicated dances to do while playing or marching and they always seem to have the most fun out of anyone in the group.
Finally, this is a shot of my band in the middle of the crowd watching the desfile. The woman in the black and white polka-dotted shirt is one of my counterparts, Francis. She hung out with me all day so I wouldn't get lost.
Afterward, all the teachers from my school went out to lunch at a nice restaurant (the lunch was funded by a mini-fiesta my school had a few weeks ago--school ended at 10:00 am that day and students paid 5 córdobas to get in to the dance, which lasted until noon). All in all, Independence day was a fun, though long, day. Paul and I also both had Monday and Tuesday off from school, so we're only now winding down from our Independence Day five-day weekend. Tomorrow and Thursday it's back to school, but then Friday begins another weekend. Don't worry, we're not working too hard, and surely there's another celebration just around the corner.
4 gross fuegos artificiales (fireworks). Note: Nothing flashy—only homemade fireworks that make noise like bombs and/or gunshots.
3 gallons each Toña & Victoria beer (may substitute Caballito)
2 bushels street vendors
6 dz. high school marching bands
4 Tbs. waiting on the curb in the hot sun
2 parts/person reggaeton music
1 pinch Jehovah’s Witnesses
Chavalo pickpockets a su gusto (to your liking)
To prepare the ingredients, the majority of classes the preceding week must be cancelled. Soak the city in fireworks beginning at 3 am the night before and continuing at closely spaced intervals until they are all used. In large stadium, combine beer, street vendors, and marching bands at 8:00 am. Let sit baking in the sun until 11:00. Spread mixture evenly throughout city in a desfile (parade). Sprinkle huge speakers full of reggaeton music very close together and repeat same two songs for rest of day. Stir in Jehovah’s Witnesses and pickpockets until smooth. Continue baking in hot sun for 4 hours, or until streets are covered in bottles, plastic bags, and other trash. To allow for full digestion, the majority of classes the following week should be cancelled. ¡Buen Provecho!
I was in the Peace Corps office in Managua looking for teaching materials when I came across an op-ed in an English teaching magazine that was talking about how teachers reading the magazine should feel lucky to have classes with a maximum of 30 students, textbooks, and photocopies because even though it’s tough to imagine, some English teachers around the world don’t have those luxuries. You might not consider these basic things luxuries and five months ago we wouldn’t have either, but to English teachers in Nicaragua they definitely are.
In my school there is only one textbook and it is—no exaggeration—35 years old. It is really weird and so it teaches antiquated stuff like, “How do you do?” I had to explain to my counterpart that I’d never heard anyone use that phrase outside of an ESL textbook or a Hemingway novel, but it’s what everyone learns here. One textbook Holly used during training had a unit on eating out at a restaurant, and examples included “Have you tried our pea soup appetizer?” and “Do we have to check our coats?” These examples would be irrelevant for students in the US, but are even more unhelpful here where no one needs a coat, let alone a place to check it. Some of the textbooks are slightly more up-to-date… one book we’ve seen has a unit called, “Don’t buy that! It’s pirated!” and begins with a dialogue with a boy and a girl. The girl says, “Look at these Nike sneakers. And those Calvin Klein jeans! They’re so cheap!” and the boy looks at her gravely and says with his best Hermione Granger voice, “They’re not Calvin Klein or Nike. Don’t buy these things… they’re pirated.” That topic is certainly more trendy, but still not the most useful phrase in a place where pirated movies and fake Puma t-shirts rule the land.
When I say that there’s only one textbook I don’t mean that there’s only one option. I mean that there’s literally one book for the whole school. The teachers are the only ones with books, so any activity that comes out of the books has to be photocopied for the whole class. But schools don’t have photocopiers and so everything would have to be copied at a bookstore and paid for by the teacher. In the past, the schools would charge the students for the copies, but with the change in government the decision was made that education should be free with no strings attached, and now that practice is prohibido. Photocopies are about the same price here as they are in the US, but since teachers earn far less here and have nearly three times as many students in every section as a classroom in the States, copies are far too expensive for teachers to provide out-of-pocket for their students very often, if at all. What happens now is that any activity or exercise that we want to do in class has to be written on the markerboard, copied down by the students (which takes about 10 times longer than you’d think), and then the students can start learning. Difficulties with limited resources aren’t just limited to English class.
Unlike high schools in the US, here students are stationary and the teachers move around. Many of the classes at Holly’s school have at least 60 students, some with even more with most classrooms being no larger than a typical room in the States. Moreover, there are usually only about 50 desks in each class so there are a lot of students sharing; I don’t think students could keep from cheating if they wanted to. One time at school my counterpart and I did an activity where the students were supposed to describe members of their own families using adjectives that they learned in class. The next day they were writing some of their homework on the board and at least three students wrote the same wrong answer: “My brother is smal, fat, and handsome.” One clever student tried some to show that he wasn’t cheating by simply changing the sentence to “My sister is smal, fat, and handsome.” Sometimes I feel that the creed “eyes on your own paper” should probably be replaced by the more realistic plea, “please limit yourself to eyeing only the papers of your immediate neighbors.” Obviously, these combined challenges make it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn; fortunately, however, we’re working with teachers here that believe that things can change to get kids interested in class and help them to learn English. Our Peace Corps project focuses on helping the teachers with their English, but perhaps more importantly (our boss would eagerly tell you) with using communicative, dynamic methods and developing locally available resources as simple as pictures from magazines or newspapers. The Peace Corps mantra is unarguably “sustainability,” so the idea is to not only teach kids English, but also to work with our counterparts to come up with ideas for the classroom that they can continue to use and share long after we’re gone.
Neither of us is under the impression that things will dramatically change immediately or even within the two years, so we’re trying to keep realistic expectations. We hope to be able to teach students that if they are going to cheat, they need to do it in a way that isn’t immediately obvious and when they come stroll into the pirated movie store in their $2 Puma shirt they can chide someone else in perfect English for wearing fake Nikes.
Here's the outside of my school: