Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nicaragua? Cheque.

 I’m back to the frontera after a nice vacation in Nicaragua! Some highlights of our trip include:
·     Crossing my first border (legally) by foot. I’m not going to lie, it was a little intense, a lot of hasslers and insolent immigration officials, but we crossed successfully! We also got our visas renewed for another 90 days (one of the reasons for the trip). Perfecto!
·    Trying probably one of the most random sports near Leon, a colonial city in northern Nicaragua. Volcano boarding entails hiking up Cerro Negro (a small volcano) and then sledding down the ash on a contraption that looks like a sled. The tour was complete with orange jumpsuits, goggles, and a couple of wipe outs on the way down. It was also topped off with one of the most fun four wheeling adventures I have ever been on and some very minty mojitos back at the hostel. I was still cleaning out black ash out of my hair and ears days later.
The five volunteers (aka Power Cinco) looking like escaped prisoners prior to boarding down the volcano
  Staying on the island on Lago Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America and the only freshwater lake in the world with sharks (I was hoping to see one but didn't!). Known as Ometepe, the island has two volcanoes and takes about an hour to get to by ferry. We stayed at this beautiful farm that has been converted into a hostel in the countryside. While described in the Lonely Planet book as a “field hospital” for its simplicity, it was one of my favorite places on the trip. We had a beautiful view of the volcano and the lake. This combined with the delicious food and the cheap $3 a night price tag was unbeatable!
·    Hiking the smaller volcano on the island called Magdalena. It was an 8-hour hike in total up through the rainforest ending at a crater lake covered in clouds at the top. It was beautiful and left the five of us, muddy, sore, and ready for bed at 9 pm!
The view of Lago Nicaragua and the bigger volcano Concepcion on the island from our hostel
  Renting a house for 3 nights near a secluded beach close to San Juan del Sur. We were a muddy five-minute walk on a dirt road to an almost deserted beach. It was beautiful!
·    Going to Playa Maderas- the home of the Nicaraguan surf competition and having some of the best fish tacos I have ever eaten. It’s always an adventure watching the surfing crowds and the people the sport attracts. Since the surfing competition was taking place the day after we were there, it was too crowded for us to try surfing. One day though!
The beach close to our house in San Juan del Sur
 Having the best Chinese dinner I possibly have ever had in Tegucigalpa (the fact that I hadn’t eaten all day could have helped too). Kind of ironic, good Chinese food in Honduras? I think so.
·    Riding on a variety of buses and never knowing what to expect. Whether it was a charter bus almost breaking down on the way to Tegucigalpa, a school bus complete with a plasma T.V. blaring Latino music videos in northern Nicaragua, or standing in a packed city bus through Managua with the door constantly flinging open, there is never a dull moment traveling in Central America.
The Power Cinco at a little French cafe we found in Leon, it was so delicious we went there twice in less than 24 hours!
Nicaragua was a great trip and just another reminder of the abundant beauty here. We met a lot of interesting people (locals and tourists), had a lot of fun as a group (maybe a little too much fun at times!), and I could not be more thankful with how the trip went. I am so lucky to have a great support group here and while the trip was wonderful, I am also thankful to be back in the tranquility of Santa Lucia and the countryside.

P.S. Right now I am reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. If you are looking for a good read, I would highly recommend it! Thinking of you all!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

La Paciencia

         Last weekend, I accompanied the last brigade on the eight hour journey to San Pedro Sula in order to drop them off at the airport. As I sat in the car on the way back as we climbed our way up mountain hills and rocky roads at a mere 10 miles per hour, I realized how the journey and the condition of the roads is also a metaphor for my time here. It takes us anywhere from three to five hours to get from the city of La Esperanza to Santa Lucia but we've been told the distance is only about 30 miles, however because of the unpaved roads, thirty miles is quite the trek! If there is one thing that I have learned during my time here, it is patience. Just like traveling to the city takes a long time, moving forward and making a change here is also a long process.
First, I have learned patience with time. Nothing will start on time here. Whether it’s a meeting that starts an hour late or traveling to a school to meet with the fifth and sixth grade girls, only to have to wait for an hour while they finish their recess and then pulling them out of class instead, I have learned that time is not really a concept here. Letting go of this sense of this control has also been a beautiful thing!
Patience with groups. Helping lead my first brigade made me realize how long it truly takes a group of 18 people to get anywhere. Everything takes three times as long and once I realized that, I could breathe a lot easier.
Patience with myself. I have days where my Spanish hits a wall or where I feel so overwhelmed with all the work there is to do and will often get discouraged. But I have to realize that my Spanish will come little by little, that I have learned so much, and that even if the work I am doing here only makes a small change, a drop in the ocean is better than none.
Some of the students at story hour after school

Patience with the type of work I am doing. I am learning that development work is hard, very hard. While there are many people who want to help, this type of work must be so much more than good intentions. It is not only looking at the programs we want to implement but also at the cultural practices, at the problems evident in the community, and at the way the community will receive the help (which is not always in a positive manner). Trying to establish a mutual relationship that is not just give on one side and all take on the other is a very challenging task. A lot of times, those communities living in poverty are built on an “aid dependency culture” in which organizations come in and give them what they need instead of establishing an alliance where there is work put in on both sides. In some ways, this type of aid does more harm than good and the community has to be invested in the project or it will fail. Building a sustainable relationship takes a long time.
Patience with the students.  Everyday I look forward to working with the kids in the library, it is one of the best parts of my day!  However, the school system here can be so frustrating at times. The culture of machismo is aggravating and yet this is just part of the culture that I must learn to deal with. In the after school programs I help with, we do a reading club. The students read a book and either write a summary or give a summary in person. However, because their schooling has mostly consisted of copying from their teacher, thinking critically to write a summary is not a learned skill. I tell them not to copy the book word for word, but they don’t know any better.           
Also, in the girl’s empowerment program Yo Puedo, we travel to different schools to talk about self-esteem and then the girls do their own little craft (a crocheted napkin or work in the school store) as a means of learning microfinance. The money they make goes to the school and the girls learn valuable skills. The program is a means to help girls feel like they do have a future besides becoming a mother and staying in the house, a common theme for the women here. However, because the girls are so used to subduing their thoughts and remaining quiet in class while the boys speak up, it is often very hard to get them to share, another cultural phenomenon that is ingrained from a young age. Yet is not their fault, it is just they way it works here and by recognizing this, I can also recognize that making a change for the better may not be my own concept of change but rather completely different from what I expected.
The students with their paper bag puppets at the after school program

 Patience. Things here happen little by little and that is ok. Just like riding on the roads is not always comfortable and sometimes feels like an exasperatingly long time for the amount of ground covered, being patient means I just have to sit back and enjoy the ride and know that one day we will reach the destination, it just may take a lot longer than expected.

         On Wednesday, I’m going to Nicaragua for a nice vacation with the other volunteers. We’ll be going to the Lago Nicaragua and to the beach for a few days! I will have limited access to e-mail for the next few weeks but please stay in touch still! 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Blessed to Be a Witness

           This past week has been a whirlwind of ups and downs and I can’t help but be reminded of the Ben Harper song, “Blessed to be a Witness.” The things I have seen here have challenged me and broken my heart but they have also made me realize how blessed I truly am.
            A group from a large Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio came to spend the week here in order to get to know the community, the problems that exist in the area, and discern what they can do to help. They will be building a bilingual school in a neighboring community called Camasca. It was truly a joy for me to watch these people grow and change throughout the course of the week based on what they had witnessed. One day we went to Camasca (where the school will be built) and we were literally treated like royalty. There was a band that followed us around, the elementary and high school set up a performance for us where the students sang and danced, and they sat us up on the stage up front and center. It was quite the experience and yet another reminder of the hospitality of the people here. When we went to the high school, we walked through a tunnel of applause and they served us wine while we sat on stage. Again, I am constantly surprised and amused by the actions here and I hope these unexpected moments never cease during my time in this community.
The front of the clinic
            One of the hardest moments for me so far has been a home visit I went on with a few of the other members of the group this past week. This is a family that lives back in the middle of nowhere in a wood shack that is falling down. They are squatters and the owner of the house is trying to get them out but they have nowhere to go. The mom, Julia has three other kids and now is pregnant with triplets! One of her sons also passed away a few years ago from rheumatic fever (a heart disease that can come about from untreated strep throat) and her husband is blind. Julia is the only source of income for the family as she sells sand (about 2 bags a day) and this barely covers enough to supply food for the family. Since she is now pregnant, she is unable to sell the sand. Her daughter is eleven and has never been to school because it’s so far and she doesn’t want to walk by herself. It is one thing to hear about these situations, but sitting in the house in the midst of the poverty and the filth and seeing the people it affects broke my heart. I feel like everything that could possibly go wrong for this family has. Julia is a little woman, not more than ninety pounds, and despite her situation, her and her husband sat there and smiled and shared with us. I just can’t imagine how she will ever support three more little babies.

The students from the elementary school in their garb for a folkloric dance
     After the visit, I was very emotional and felt so hopeless as to what we could we do for this family. However, Doctor Ruben, a very dedicated doctor for Shoulder to Shoulder who works relentlessly for the people here, has arranged for Julia to go to Tegucigalpa (the capital city) for care. Shoulder to Shoulder will pay for her to go there once she is at 27 weeks (just 2 weeks away) and will cover the expenses while she is there. While this is huge help, I have no idea how she can continue on with her life after they are born. Thankfully, the group from Cincinnati is banding together to help with a house for this family. As I am confronted with the suffering apparent here, I can’t help but be thankful for my blessings and for the people in this world like Ruben who are so devoted to improving the lives of others. I recognize that while it never gets easier to be in the face of such agony, I have to have hope that things will get better and know that I am blessed to be a witness.