We're Coming to America!

>> 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!

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Our first visitors

>> Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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:

The Mirador in Catarina is one of my favorite places in the department of Masaya so we made it there early in the trip:

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.

I felt really bad because I forgot to remind my dad that it would be cold so he only had shorts with him. He survived, though:

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.

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Arachnophobia

>> Wednesday, November 28, 2007

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.

The prey:

Our humble hunting weapons:

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.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

>> Thursday, November 22, 2007

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!

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Hindsight is 20/20: Packing List Advice

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2007

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

  • Headlamp: Invaluable for reading at night, the nights when the power goes out (there are many), and late-night trips to the outside bathroom. We’re really glad we have small LED lamps because they don’t eat batteries like some of the others.
  • Battery-powered alarm clock: Again useful because the power goes out all the time. Ours also shows the temperature which is fun for complaining about how IT’S NOVEMBER AND IT’S NINETY DEGREES IN HERE hot it is.
  • USB flash drive: It’s really nice to be able to save e-mails, documents, and have things on hand no matter what Internet cafe you go to. Paul has already lost a couple and they’re really expensive here, so we should have even brought a couple extras.
  • Nalgene bottles: These were great to stuff full of things while we were traveling, they’re indestructible, and they’re really nice because they can be boiled for cleaning.
  • Books: The Peace Corps office does have a big library, but the selection is sort of overpopulated with Danielle Steele and John Grisham. It’s great to bring a few books that you’ve really been wanting to read, and you can use your primo books as collateral to trade with other volunteers.
  • Digital camera: I’m not sure I know any volunteer who didn’t bring a digital camera. Digital was an easy choice for us as we can upload them online, put them on the blog, e-mail them, etc. We can also burn CDs of pictures to keep them safe. Film can be developed here, but the prints are really horrible quality and I’ve heard they don’t do well in the heat and humidity. Be sure to have a good case to keep your camera safe and dry.
  • Lots of extra batteries: Batteries here are expensive and horrible quality (a friend once bought name-brand batteries here that wouldn’t even power up her digital camera). We brought Energizer Lithium batteries for our cameras and they are awesome—they’re lightweight and they last forever (after thousands of pictures, I changed my batteries after being here for about 6 months).
  • Good everyday bag: There are plenty of tote bags here for sale, but the quality is often suspect. Paul brought his Tumbuk2 and I brought my own tried-and-true bag; we take them to school, the market, everywhere every day, so it’s nice to have something sturdy and, if possible, waterproof.
  • iPod/iPod speakers: It’s nice to be able to listen to some of your own music sometimes, you can use it in class to teach songs, and you can share your music with friends. We brought speakers that have decent volume control and that are battery-powered, so they can be used when there’s no power and they’re loud enough to be able to be heard over a loud classroom or irritating neighbor.
  • Command Hooks: These aren’t really useful until you get to your site, but once we did, we were really happy to have a bunch of 3M Command Hooks. Walls here are often crumbly, uneven concrete and nails just don’t work. We’re using Command Hooks for everything from our tote bags to kitchen utensils to keys to our bath towels. We actually only brought poster strips with us (also great for “hanging” posters and photos) but my mom sent a huge Ziplock bag full of hooks that we’re using all over the place.
  • Ziplock bags: There’s a long-running Peace Corps joke about how one of the most valuable parts of care packages that we receive are the Ziplock bags that things come in. They’re good for keeping things organized and absolutely necessary for ant-proofing food and keeping it from going stale. Bring a variety of sizes.
  • Chacos: Not really the prettiest shoes, but they’re durable and good to wear every day. And the company has a 50% Peace Corps Volunteer discount!
  • Card games: We brought UNO, Skip Bo, and a deck of regular cards. The first two were great to play with our host families, and the deck of cards is great for anything from solitaire to heated games of Euchre with other volunteers.
  • Laptop: We brought my three-year-old 12” iBook and it’s been really great so far. We use it to save and edit photos, do reports for work and prepare lesson plans, and write e-mails and blog posts; we could do all this at cyber cafes, but it would be really expensive and time-consuming. We also update our iPods and watch the inexpensive DVDs that are for sale on every street corner. We love our iBook because it’s portable (for when we get to stay in Managua hotels that have free wireless), has great battery life, and the Internet cafes infest our flash drives with viruses; if we had a PC that got a virus, we’d be in trouble, but our Mac is always safe. I wouldn’t recommend buying a nice new, expensive computer to bring to the Peace Corps because I’m not sure how it will survive two years of the dust and humidity.
Para Muchachos:
  • Nice, button-up short-sleeved shirts: Paul brought a couple of pique polo shirts, but after a couple of hang washings they became extra-extra-grande and they take a long time to dry. The button-up shirts dressy enough for Paul to wear to school and have retained their size more-or-less. You can find them in the market here, but it’s nice to have them even before you’re ready to brave the markets.
  • Quick-drying pants: They’re lightweight and cool and, as the name suggests, dry really quickly, which is a definite must when it rains for three weeks straight.
  • Comfortable t-shirts: Paul brought 2 or 3 but wishes he had brought 4 or 5 because Nicaraguan t-shirts seem to fit really oddly.
  • Quick-drying boxers: Paul brought Ex-Officio boxers that he really likes because they dry quickly (see above) and haven’t stretched as much as everything else.
  • Good pair(s) of jeans: Like most clothing, jeans are available here but the quality isn’t as good or if it is, they’re really expensive. Paul can wear jeans to school and surprisingly they dry pretty quickly in the sun.
  • Basketball shorts: Paul has yet to play basketball in this country, but the shorts are great to ease the awkward trip from the bathroom to your bedroom when you’re living with your host family, and are great for doing laundry, lounging, running to buy a newspaper, whatever.
  • One nice set of clothes: We needed this in staging when we went to the Nicaraguan embassy, for swearing in, and it never hurts to have one nice outfit at the ready. Paul brought nice khakis, a shirt and tie, and brown leather shoes.
  • Swimsuit: When you get the chance to swim you don’t want to be the sucker without a swimsuit, but if you want to swim Nica-style, then you just wear your jeans.
  • Razors: Razors are expensive here, so if your face is used to a Mach 3, you should bring along an ample supply unless you plan on growing a wild hippie beard.
Para Muchachas:
  • Stretchy t-shirts: I brought one Gap Stretch T-shirt and am now scouring eBay for more. My shirt has been awesome because it hasn’t faded or stretched, which is quite the accomplishment, and it dries quickly. Regular t-shirts have stretched, faded, balled up, and gotten holes at the seams.
  • Stretchy underwear: For all the same reasons as above, I’m really happy I brought Body by Victoria undies. I’d recommend bringing a lot of undergarments because the less often you need to do laundry (especially during the rainy season), the better.
  • Feminine products: Pads are available here (though there’s not as much variety as at home) but tampons are nowhere to be found. Also keep in mind that nothing (not even toilet paper) can be flushed in this country; it all has to go in the trash can. I highly recommend something like the Diva Cup.
  • Swimsuit: Nicaraguans swim in jeans and t-shirts, so I’m not sure I’ve seen swimsuits for sale many places. People wear swimsuits, though, at touristy beaches and hotel/hostel pools so you’ll probably want to have one.
  • Dress clothes: I only brought a couple of nicer outfits, and I wish I had brought more. Shopping here for clothes is sort of an ordeal and requires a lot of patience and stamina. I wish I would have brought more “business casual” clothes like a pair of thin black pants, some nicer shirts, and some more nice skirts to wear to things like dinners and conferences.
If You Have Room/Weight:
  • Multi-tool: It’s really nice to have around the house as a screwdriver or an extra knife to cut up an orange or mango but not absolutely essential.
  • Moon Handbook: Nicaragua: We brought Living Abroad in Nicaragua instead of the regular travel book, which was a mistake. We had the Moon Handbook sent to us because it’s really helpful to plan weekend getaways or to know where to eat when you’re visiting friends. If you don’t have space, you can sometimes spot an old edition in the office library, but I think it’s worth it. It was also written by former Nica PCVs.
  • Long-sleeve shirts: Some of the sites are kind of cold in the mornings and evenings, so long-sleeve shirts are nice to have around.
  • Good rain jacket: Before we came, we really thought a good rain jacket would be the most important item to bring here. I’m glad I brought it, but it wasn’t as necessary as I thought. It’s too hot to want to wear a jacket very much, and we’ve tried to adopt the Nicaraguan policy of just not going outside when it’s raining.
  • Good umbrella: After what I just said about the rain jacket, there are times when you just have to go outside when it’s raining or when the rain catches you by surprise. I have a really nice umbrella packed away at home that I wish I had brought; I bought one here, and it sometimes leaks and is getting a little rusty. Nicas don’t use umbrellas much for the rain, but they use them a lot to provide shade. I carry my small umbrella with me all the time because you never know when it’s going to start pouring when you’re out and if it’s not, you can probably use it to protect you from the sun.
  • School supplies: This is another group of items that are available here, but are of a poorer quality. We brought Sharpies and had Crayola markers, Mr. Sketch markers, and whiteboard markers sent to us. Other really nice items to have are index cards (for Spanish flash cards and to use in class) and pens if you have a favorite type from home. Construction or other colored papers are also hard to find here.
  • Spanish reference book: Before we came, lots of people told us not to bring any Spanish books under any circumstances. We followed this advice and regretted it. The Peace Corps gives you a Spanish-English dictionary, 501 Spanish Verbs, and a grammar exercise book. We had one really awesome book that we used in a college class, and there have been countless times when I think, “Oh, I really wish I had En Breve to look this up… I know it’s in there!” If you have something you really like, bring it. If not, I wouldn’t worry about it.
  • Sheets: The Welcome Book said to bring flat sheets so you can use them on any bed. Here there are twin-sized beds and full-sized beds. If you know already what size bed you will buy, then I would bring sets of flat and fitted sheets. Your family provides sheets during training.
  • Smartwool socks: We brought moisture-wicking Smartwool socks because of our fallacious two-year-long-camping-trip mentality (see Rain hat below), but wound up being really happy we brought them. It took a surprisingly short amount of time for us to become accustomed to the heat; we now layer ourselves in socks, pants, long-sleeved t-shirts, and fleece jackets any time the thermometer dips down below about 77.
If You Don’t Have Room/Weight: If it’s the night before staging and you realize that your bags weigh 100 pounds, these are things you could easily leave behind.
  • Soap and Shampoo: Our stuff from the Peace Corps said to bring a 3 months’ supply of all the toiletry products. Bring at least enough for staging, orientation, and a few days with your host family, but people here also bathe regularly, so this stuff is easy to find.
  • Bandanas: If you don’t have room for bandanas then you’ve got some serious space issues, but if you can’t bring them don’t worry--they are cheap and plentiful here for the always-important sweat rag.
  • Huge roll of Duct Tape: We brought a lot of Duct Tape with us. While it does come in handy sometimes, we would be just fine with a little bit of tape wrapped around a pencil; the full roll is really big and really heavy.
Leave It At Home!
  • Medicine: The first day you get to Nicaragua, you receive a small briefcase full of medicine and medical supplies. This includes everything from Band-Aids to a thermometer to chewable Pepto Bismol. Anything that isn’t in your kit can be requested including multivitamins and your favorite brand of OTC allergy medicine.
  • Rain hat: We both loved having rain hats when we were camping because they kept us dry and covered us from the sun, but here we haven’t used them. Appearance is very important here and Nicaraguans already think we’re weird for being tall and white, so wearing a rain hat is a bit much. Generally speaking, Peace Corps isn’t a camping trip, so be sure the stuff you’re bringing is stuff you’d actually wear or use at home.
  • Locks: The Peace Corps made a really big deal about having combination locks for everything, but I don’t really know why. In training, families are required to provide you with a room that locks, and if you really need locks for something, you can buy them here. We did bring a computer lock that we use at hotels, but it’s probably not necessary.
Other Packing Advice:
1. Bring what you want. Packing lists were really valuable to use as we were preparing to leave, but they have their limits. If you have something you really love and really want to bring, then bring it, even if you don’t see it on anyone else’s list. Paul and I both brought our favorite pillows, Paul brought his Nintendo DS, and I really regretted not bringing my knitting supplies. If it’s something like a laptop or a Nintendo DS that you wouldn’t want neighbors or your host family to see, you can always just make sure to use it privately, but we were surprised that people here are no strangers to iPods or Nintendos. Little comforts from home can make a big difference, and the worst that can happen is that it was a hassle to bring something that you don’t use.

Similarly, don’t bring things just because you see them on a packing list; if it’s not something you’ve ever used in the States and don’t think you’re going to use it here, you probably won’t. The Welcome Book said to bring a garlic press, but I never used a garlic press at home and don’t regret not having one here. The only exception to this rule is a headlamp: you will regret it if you do not bring a headlamp, even if you have never used one before.

2. If it can’t be bought here, it can be sent.
Many things that I thought were especially clever to bring—like extra watch batteries—can be found easily here. For things that can’t be found here, like knitting needles, it wasn’t a big deal that I left them at home because it was easy to have them sent in a care package (thanks again!). Other things we have had sent to us include measuring cups, Command Hooks, books, candy, flash drives, and family photos. I wouldn’t want to mail a really valuable item like a laptop or a camera, but anything else is just a care package away.

Paul and I also wish we had pre-packaged some care packages for ourselves before we left. We would have included things like books that we already own but didn’t bring and snacks for our families to seal up and send later. If nothing else, we wish we would have packed separately things we were already thinking we might want sent later on (particular books, knitting supplies, that shirt I really wanted to bring) so that it would be less of a hassle for Paul’s parents to rummage through all the boxes in storage in order to find that garlic press that we really, really can’t live without.

3. Take advantage of all that space!
I already talked about how Ziplock bags are worth their weight in headlamps not only because they make it much easier to pack for the Peace Corps but also because they’re really useful once you get here. We also used Space Bags to pack all our clothes, and they were awesome. They cut down on space, make backpacks a lot easier to pack, and are good for storing stuff and keeping it dry once you get here. Especially since you’ll have to unpack and repack everything at least 6 times before you’re settled in your house at your site, the Space Bags are great. Be sure to get the kind that you don’t have to use a vacuum cleaner to seal. We also used Nalgene bottles and other storage containers to keep things organized for the journey (even though some storage containers were filled with other storage containers) and now we’ve found all sorts of creative uses for just about everything we packed things in.

Good luck packing, and don’t forget that headlamp!

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Lights, Camera, Acto!

>> Thursday, November 01, 2007

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.

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Creepie Crawlies

>> Saturday, October 27, 2007

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.

Eww.

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.

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Surprise Fiestas

>> Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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.

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An Open Letter

>> Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dear October,

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.

Respectfully yours,
Paul

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Matagalpa

>> Friday, October 19, 2007

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.”

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Rain Day

>> Thursday, October 04, 2007

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:
video

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.

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Greased-up tree trunks and firework bulls

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:

Since words are inadequate to describe the terror you should feel upon seeing the bull for the first time, here’s a video to help you understand:
video
After the big fireworks the air is filled with sulfur and smoke, but chavalos still want their picture taken:
Holly and Miriam safely out of danger from the raging fireworks bull:
The whole festival centered around the greasy tree:
The promised pole-climb was a bit underwhelming because not many people were willing to do it. People were pretty smart about it, though. Instead of trying to climb it solo, a group of guys would climb on top of each other (sorry the picture is hard to see).
No one really got close while we were there because the guy on the bottom would always crumble and then all of the guys on the human ladder would slide down the tree. No one had gotten the prize (cash) in a little over two hours, so we decided to leave because it would go on until someone got it. We left to get some nancite helado and Holly spilled it all over herself and the ground but the picture has mysteriously been deleted (hmmm).

It turned out that a few minutes after we left someone got the prize, which of course only intensified the fireworks. Things finally settled down, but there is an exact replica of la alborada this weekend at a different church, but at least we can be prepared for the explosions this time.

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La Hípica

>> Thursday, September 27, 2007

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:

video

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:

There were plenty of horses and guys on horses drinking beer:

Our friend explained what this is, but we didn't really understand. It's a really tall woman and that's about as far as we got.


Even the chavalos got to ride in the parade:



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.

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What Can We Send You?

>> Thursday, September 20, 2007

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:

  • Peanut Butter M&Ms
  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Annie’s Mac & Cheese (Bunny Helper)
  • Jolly Ranchers
  • Luna/Clif bars
  • Vegetarian powdered soups
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Twizzlers
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Magazines (People, The Week, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and anything with lots of pictures that we can also cut out and use in class)
  • Starburst Jelly Beans
  • Honey-Roasted Cashews and Peanuts
  • News-Leader/Post Dispatch (to keep us informed on what’s going on at home)
  • Folding Orikasu Bowls
  • Good-smelling candles/incense
  • Books

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:

Paul/Holly Ragan
Apartado Postal #59
Masaya, Nicaragua
Central America

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!

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Independence Day

>> Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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.

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Recipe for a Nicaraguan Holiday

>> Monday, September 17, 2007

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!

Serves 5,465,100.

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Condition of the Schools

>> Friday, September 14, 2007

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:

This is the "inside":
Two students hanging out by the basketball court:
A first-year (7th grade) classroom:
 The outside of Holly's school:
A picture of the concession stands:

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