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:

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.


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!


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.


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.


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:


Safe and Sound at Home

>> Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I wanted to post a quick update to let everyone know we're keeping an eye on Felix, but nothing is expected where we are except for maybe some rain (and we get rain every day anyway). :) Some of the volunteers in the north are being consolidated together, but that really just means that they're getting to stay in nice hotels with hot water and cable TV.

In other news, we finally have a house! We just moved in on Sunday, so we're still getting settled in. The most important thing is that we have our hammocks set up prominently in the living room and we spend plenty of time relaxing in them in the evenings after school.

Here are just a few pictures we took the evening we officially rented the house to give everyone an idea of what it's like. We'll have to post some more once everything is unpacked and put away. First here is a picture of the house from the outside. It's on a corner, so we have that nice little patio on the side to hang our clothes or sit out and watch the people passing by.

 Here is a look from the front of the house through the living room toward the back. The bedroom is on the left, the hallway is on the right, and you can see the bathroom door in the back right corner. The kitchen area is back behind the bedroom.
 Finally, here's a look from the bedroom back toward the front of the house in the living room. It's nice that our house has a lot of doors, because we can open them to let a nice breeze in. The baby on the door is a calendar that came with the house, I guess.
 It's really nice to have our own place, and now we finally won't have to pack up our stuff and move again until it's time to come home!


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