Devil's Advocate

>> Saturday, January 31, 2009

Think Again: The Peace Corps
by Robert Strauss

The reason the Peace Corps is overlooked as a development organization has a lot to do with the youth and inexperience of the majority of its volunteers. Equally important is its unwillingness to decide if it is a development organization or an organization with a mission “to promote world peace and friendship,” as stipulated by Congress in the Peace Corps Act. It would like to be both, but finds itself falling short on both objectives because it cannot decide which is the more important.
Last week I discovered this article in Foreign Policy written by a former Peace Corps Country Director. It's a somewhat critical view of Peace Corps and its effectiveness, and asserts that many widely held beliefs regarding Peace Corps are actually myths.

Paul and I feel a little conflicted because we agree with many of Strauss' arguments, but also don't want to think our time here has been frivolous. We will leave Nicaragua in less than six months, so at this stage in our service we're beginning to think about the mark we'll be leaving on our community. This might not have been the ideal time for us to stumble upon this article, but it's worth thinking about and I wanted to share it here.

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Trash

>> Thursday, January 29, 2009

In Masaya we're pretty lucky because we get regular trash pick up three times a week. Some of our friends in smaller cities have to wait a lot longer or just burn their trash like their neighbors. The truck usually comes in the morning, but we can't put trash out too far ahead of time or the dogs will tear it apart. There's really nothing worse than coming home to a ripped apart trash bag and your trash strewn all along the road for the whole neighborhood to see.

Several men walk alongside the truck all day long, picking up the trash and throwing it into the back of the truck.  To alert people that the trash truck is coming there is a really loud bell that is rung as they're coming down the street, and Dora has learned that that bell means something exciting is happening. Usually we forget or are asleep when the trash truck comes, so we're always frantically running around trying to put everything in one bag, run to the front door, unlock several locks, and put the trash on the sidewalk. With my inferior human ears I sometimes don't hear it until it's already passed, but now Dora is quick to alert us and we don't have to worry about keeping stinky trash bags for an extra couple of days.

These guys just walk alongside the truck and pick up trash bags off of the sidewalk:

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Danny's Guest Blogging: Part Three: Reflections

>> Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Holly and Paul were two of my best friends in high school.  We have kept in touch since then, but our AIM chats and emails about their life in Nicaragua could not accurately convey just how much their lives have changed while serving in the Peace Corps.

Holly and Paul, without even realizing it, have become quite proficient at Spanish.  The moment that best illustrates this is when Holly and I were patronizing the fine establishment known as Tip Top. I stood alongside and watched as Holly and Tip Top lady discussed in Spanish the several different combinations of main courses and sides in the family meal, and after this two minute conversation, Holly turns to me and asks, "Does that sound good to you?"

Perhaps Holly assumed I was paying attention during my two Spanish courses in high school, but most likely, she didn't even realize that she was speaking in Spanish--ordering food in Spanish is commonplace, something she does every day.  I doubt Holly and Paul realize how impressive it is to a uni-lingual observer such as myself that they are able to communicate with people in two different languages while I can barely do it in one.

The transportation system in Nicaragua was also quite foreign to me. I expected standing-room only, hot and sweaty Nicaraguan buses where roosters and people ride side-by-side, but I didn't expect that all in one day, we would utilize every mode of transportation ever invented: we took a boat back to Bluefields, a cab to the airport, a plane to Managua, and a school bus back to Masaya.  It's not even the varying forms of transportation--it's also the entire system for making reservations.  When I want to fly somewhere I go to expedia.com.  When they want to get around in Nicaragua, they go to the airport or bus terminal or harbor and hope the plane/bus/boat isn't full yet.  If it's not, they are awarded with their very own boarding pass, which I'm pretty sure was incorrectly taken literally by a Bluefields Airport worker at some point.

Nicaragua is an amazing place; it would make a great vacation spot or even a fun place to live if you approach the area with the right expectations.  I visited expecting to see how the other half lives. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the hemisphere, and certain areas are debilitatingly poor and dangerous--places where trash lines the side of the roads, and bums sleep on every sidewalk.  But there are comparable areas in every major American city too.

While Nicaragua does have impoverished areas, it also has beach areas and panoramic views that rival anything America's coastal cities have to offer.  Still, though, Nicaragua will not provide you with the creature comforts of America--but, as far as I'm concerned, that's the entire point.  If you're accustomed to eating McDonald's every day and having food brought to you (which, admittedly, I have been in the past) and going from one air conditioned place to another, then you're probably not going to like it.  But if you're willing to step outside of your boundaries then you'll likely discover that not only can you get by with way less, you might even be happier.

It is possible that my one week stay does not give me the authority to speak on this matter.  I had my own personal translators and photographers following me around for the duration of my short stay,
and they used their knowledge of the area to keep me out of trouble and show me the best that Nicaragua had to offer.   My week in Nicaragua was a vacation--I knew the poverty, the cold showers, and the muggy weather were temporary, and once I left I'd return to a familiar and comfortable America.  Holly and Paul don't have that luxury.  Still, though, I feel that the Peace Corps experience--both the good and the bad, and I know Holly has a list of the bads--is invaluable and will pay meaningful if not financial dividends later in life.

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Danny's Guest Blogging: Part Two: Poshing It

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Later in our adventure we left the East Coast and headed to San Juan del Sur on the West Coast.

The bus ride was something any Central American traveler must experience. Standing room only, roosters in bags, hot and muggy--exactly what I wanted.

When we finally arrived at San Juan del Sur I felt like I was in a completely different country. Geographically the city is quite close to Masaya and Bluefields, but culturally, it felt worlds apart.
Our time in San Juan del Sur was mainly spent exploring the city and swimming at the beautiful pools. We also ran into some other Peace Corps Volunteers on vacation and spent the night watching the sunset and exploring the city.
The rest of our trip was spent traveling back to Masaya, seeing the local sites, tasting the local foods, and reflecting on the best trip of my life.

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Culture Awe: Masaya and San Juan del Sur

>> Monday, January 26, 2009

After our trip to paradise in the Pearl Keys, it was time to return back to the Pacific side for the second half of Danny's trip. We spent most of my birthday in an epic Amazing Race-style journey in which the tasks were to beat the Swedes and make it home: Paul and Danny rose before sunrise to buy tickets on the earliest panga (boat) back to Bluefields, once in Bluefields we spent the morning looking nervously at the clock hoping we could make it off of standby on to the earlier flight back to Managua, and then took a taxi and a bus and a neighborhood shuttle to get back to our house. We eventually did make it home in time to unpack our sandy clothes, greet the dogs and dog watchers extraordinaire Nicole and Caitlin, and have the the fanciest birthday dinner that Masaya has to offer--Papa John's Pizza--before going out on the town to celebrate:

The next morning, we went to San Juan del Sur so that we would have seen both the Atlantic and the Pacific in the span of a day. Danny got the quintessential Central American bus ride, complete with a rooster in a sack in his feet and a bus driver that spent a fair amount of the trip sending text messages:
Surprisingly, we made it safe and sound to San Juan and spent the afternoon having lunch in a pretentious but lovely bookstore/cafe, walking along the beach, and exploring the new shops that had popped up since our last visit in April.
After our semi-rough accommodations in Pearl Lagoon, Paul and I mentioned to Danny that there were, in fact, nice hotels in Nicaragua. Easily the nicest place in the country is Pelican Eyes in San Juan del Sur, and Danny insisted that we go. Pelican Eyes is a beautiful resort built on a hillside overlooking all of San Juan del Sur and the harbor; its three infinity pools make for some pretty amazing views. Here is the uppermost infinity pool and the middle infinity pool:

Me overlooking San Juan:
In addition to really nice pools, the little villas are awfully nice as well, complete with their own private patio outside:
Paul mentioned earlier our criterion about places we visit having animals around that we can play with. Pelican Eyes has a non-profit veterinary clinic that rescues and cares for many animals in the area, and has its fair share of dogs and cats that call the various villas their homes. Our villa, we found out, is the home of Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan was constantly scheming to get into our room, either by running in open doors or climbing in though windows. Unfortunately, he was not a friendly cat, and would bite any time we tried to pet him, pick him up, or disturb him in any way. Azerbaijan claimed the entire room as his own; when Paul climbed into bed for the night, Azerbaijan made it quite clear that the bed was his domain when he attacked Paul's feet from under the covers where he was hiding.

After our one night in Pelican Eyes' Pacific paradise, it was time to go back to Masaya. Danny had wanted to test out his intestines of steel by consuming Nicaraguan street food, but due to the negative effects parasites can have on vacations, only on the last day were Paul and I willing to let him take the risk. He started with a drink from a plastic bag, chicha:
Then moved on to some enchiladas and salad in the market:
And then graduated up to this unidentified meat (later identified as undesirable pork parts) made in this part of the bus depot:
And finally the night ended when we shared coconut milk out of a freshly macheted coconut:
We have come to regret tempting the intestinal parasite gods with much less, but much to our surprise, Danny never ended up getting sick. Aside from that glaring flaw, I think Danny got the quintessential Central American vacation he was looking for.

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Danny's Guest Blogging: Part One: Roughing It

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hola!

Almost one month ago I flew into Managua, Nicaragua to visit Holly and Paul. Our adventure started at the Eastern coast of the country where we celebrated New Year's Eve, got a little roughed up, and discovered that paradise and purgatory is separated by a one hour boat ride.

The adventure then took us to the Western coast of the nation where we explored a burgeoning beach town named San Juan del Sur and stayed in one of the nicest resorts anywhere. We experienced poverty and affluence in a country roughly the size of New York state. I returned home with a left ankle twice the size of the right, arms that are seriously scraped up, and a bandage circling my hand covering a quarter sized chunk of skin missing. I got the quintessential Central American experience.

On the first night we did a little exploring of Masaya, but we mostly just planned for what would end up being the best trip of my life.

Early the next morning we boarded our flight to Bluefields--a town on the Eastern coast of Nicaragua.

After a few hours of exploring Bluefields, we took a boat to Pearl Lagoon where we had reservations at a hostel.
Here's the walk to the hostel, the entrance, and our room.
While this might not look like much to you, it was exactly what I wanted when I visited Nicaragua--a glimpse into a real Central America that is vastly different than where I currently live.

That night we celebrated New Year's Eve at a place where I didn't quit fit in...
...but we all still had a great time.

On the next day we made an excursion to what the hostel workers called "Paradise." I was skeptical at first, but as our boat traveled further from Pearl Lagoon, the water became clearer and bluer, and finally this island appeared in the distance.
We had all day to explore our own chain of three private islands (we could have swum to the third). Paul and I tried and failed and eventually succeeded at climbing the coolest tree ever.

That left me with some cuts and scrapes, but if I could do it all again I wouldn't hesitate to say yes.

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Culture Shock & Awe: The Atlantic Coast

>> Saturday, January 24, 2009

Our friend Danny told us that on his visit he wanted the quintessential Central American experience, so we tried to deliver and visit a variety of places during his week here.  We went to pick him up at the airport around 9:00 pm on Tuesday (December 30th... we've been busy lazy), and after a brief visit to our house in Masaya, we were back at the airport less than 12 hours later to go to the Atlantic Coast, an autonomous region that makes up about half of the geographic area of Nicaragua. From Wikipedia:

About 9% of Nicaragua's population is black, or Afro-Nicarag├╝ense, and mainly reside on the country's sparsely populated Caribbean or Atlantic coast. The black population is mostly composed of black English-speaking Creoles who are the descendants of escaped or shipwrecked slaves; many carry the name of Scottish settlers who brought slaves with them, such as Campbell, Gordon, Downs and Hodgeson.
For Volunteers, the Atlantic Coast is a magical land of mystery because of its distinct "English-speaking" (more on that later) culture and because travel there is highly restricted (and for good reason) by Peace Corps and the Embassy. It's possible to travel via land on a long, uncomfortable journey, but Volunteers are only permitted to travel by air after applying for and receiving special permission.
We got approval and trekked back to the airport to buy our tickets (reservations on the two small airlines that go to the Atlantic Coast seem informal at best) on one of the 12-seater planes for the one hour flight, but the pilot's inattention left us a little unsure.
Once we touched down in Bluefields we weren't quite sure what all of the hype was about--it looked pretty much like every other city in Nicaragua but some people had darker skin and spoke an English creole; we had imagined that the coste├▒os would speak standard English with a charming Caribbean accent, but this was not the case. There were some words we understood but also with Spanish and Miskito words thrown in to a grammar that was completely unintelligible. Holly's inner linguist was happy to experience the the Miskito Coast creole (it is not "poor English"; it has a grammar all its own), but the linguistic beauty didn't make it any easier to find out what time boats left or to order a Coke.  I'm sure after a couple of weeks we could have communicated, but instead we just spoke Spanish to everyone and people just assumed we were French, stupid, or both.

Bluefields was just a layover on our way to Pearl Lagoon, which was an hour away in the wildest boat ride we've ever been on, but everyone else seemed unimpressed.
We had read about Pearl Lagoon as being really nice, less populated, and more relaxed than Bluefields. While it was all of these things, we also expected a beach, but there wasn't one; instead, it was a small town with one newly paved road and brackish water at a dock. At dinner that night some Swedes came up to us and invited us on a boat excursion to "paradise" the next morning (New Year's Day). Holly and I had heard about the trip and wanted to do it, so we said yes. After that we went out to a pretty ruckus New Year's Eve celebration and I'm pretty sure that's when Holly's phone got picked out of my pocket (the phone got replaced when Danny got Holly a new phone for her birthday). We started back to the hotel a few hours after midnight, but those Swedes were still celebrating.

The next morning, our trip started to take on a charmed quality after a worrying start. At 7:00 when we were supposed to meet for the boat trip, we went to the front gate of the hotel and no one was there. No Swedes, no Miss Dell (the owner of the hotel), and we thought we had missed the literal boat. Instead, it turned out, the Swedes had gotten back only an hour or two earlier and were comatose and unable to go on the trip. When Miss Dell got back she told us that only seven people fit on this boat anyway so the three of us wouldn't have been able to go with the five Swedes, but she would be willing to forget about the Swedes (who were actually Swiss, but that's an unimportant detail) and take us instead. There was a cool British couple that was interested, so we all decided to go to island paradise.

Here's Miss Dell dealing with the tight security at the ocean outlet:
From the checkpoint it was another 45 minutes or so through the ocean to the keys, but this boat ride was relaxing in comparison. The water around Pearl Lagoon was all murky and brown, but the farther away we got, the bluer and prettier the water got. By the time the islands were in sight, we were patting ourselves on our backs for stabbing the Swedes in theirs.
There were several Pearl Keys scattered around, but we were heading to one of the most idyllic, and one with a tree hanging out over the ocean begging to be climbed.
The main thing I look for in quality Nicaraguan accommodations is the presence of least a few nice dogs, and this place fit the bill: it had several really sweet dogs (Daisy and her pups) that loved to walk around the island with us and swim in the ocean:
While convincing us that we should go on this boat trip without the Swedes, Miss Dell really emphasized the value of the trip because it included our drinks and sandwiches (sandwiches!).  I was sort of worried about our lunch prospects when one of the kids that was hanging out on the island that day was trying to catch fish, but the only one he came up with was this poisonous fellow:
Miss Dell actually cooked a delicious chicken lunch, so maybe she had just been trying to lower our expectations... we never did get any sandwiches.

We spent the whole day on two little deserted islands and we ended up climbing that tree:
 But Danny also ended up falling off. Twice. And skinning himself up quite severely in the process:
The day trip made the Atlantic Coast really worth it for us, and the boat rides, puppies, white sandy beaches, and beautiful sunsets were the perfect way to ring in 2009 before we went back home to Masaya for Holly's birthday celebration with friends.
 
  
 
Stay tuned for Part II: San Juan del Sur and Pelican Eyes as well as Danny's guest blog about the trip.

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