As we pulled into the bus station, a small girl was singing along to a reggaeton song with more passion as the singer himself. It might have been Enrique Iglesias’ new reggaeton song, where he sings about looking for his love in the street and shouting for her. It makes more sense in Spanish. I should probably know the lyrics better so that I can sing along to them at his concert next week. I smiled at the girl in appreciation of her morning serenade, and headed for Enrique’s cab. Enrique is one of the friendliest cab drivers I know. We chatted about the Sandinista insurrection against Samoza’s troops in 1978, and how the city was blockaded for about weeks. Enrique was conscripted to serve in the army in the mountains in the 1980s, and they assigned him to assemble weapons. “It was ridiculous. I couldn’t even assemble a jigsaw puzzle, but they had me assembling guns!” he laughed. I told him I was interested in knowing more about what life was like in the ‘80s here. He, like many people his age, will tell you that the economy was better under Samoza, Nicaragua’s dictator before the Sandinistas took over in 1979. Others will fervently praise the Sandinistas for having toppled the “politically oppressive” Samoza dynasty. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I cannot give my political opinion on such matters, nor do I feel qualified enough to. After having lived here and after having heard what people think after having actually lived through the conflict, I don’t feel as if I can offer any such opinion. I can just observe.
I stepped out of my taxi (Managua is not conducive to walking) at to the mall at 10:45, and although I’d eaten a banana, drinkable yogurt, and some melted mini snickers from the states for breakfast, I was hungry again. While the girls finished up at the beauty salon, I headed for Sbarro’s pizza at the food court. I raised my eyebrows at the $7 pizza slices, and did a double take. I was willing to pay that much for bottomless mimosas, but not for a slice of pizza. I moved on to the Nicamexican food. I tried a pork torta because they didn’t have al pastor or cochinita pibil as advertised. It was decent, but lacked a heat factor. I miss spicy food. My tolerance for spicy food has shot down since I’ve been here. Sometimes I wonder why Mexico is the only Latin American country that has that masochistic obsession with spicy food. Logically, we shouldn’t seek out that burning sensation on our tongues that leaves us making an inward hissing sound. But, we do. Why not? It brings the flavor alive, many will claim.
After finishing my torta, I met up with Danica and met Eliana, a new volunteer for the first time. We went upstairs to the restaurant as soon as it opened, and asked for the bottomless mimosas. Danica asked the waiter for pizza, but apparently, the “Pizza guy” doesn’t come in until five. We laughed because we weren’t too surprise that this was an issue. When she ordered fries, I joked that the fry guy probably wouldn’t be in town until five either. When our waiter brough us our first mimosa, I was disappointed because although it came with a cute little cherry, it was tiny. Our waiter was very attentive, though, and made sure to keep the supply of spiked sparkling juice flowing. We ended up sitting, laughing, and sharing thoughts on life inside and outside of the Peace Corps. We talked about who we were before and after we came here.
Danica and Eliana are both of Dominican descent. We ended up talking about Julia Alvarez’s books, which provide a female perspective on what the DR was like during time periods such as Trujillo’s dictatorship. I learned more about the turbulent, racialized historical conflict between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I also learned about how Trujillo tried whiping out black people from “his side” of the island, although his own grandmother was black. He even used makeup to whiten his skin. There’s such an intense sense of internalized racism that exists on but is not limited to the island. People try to hide their brownness everywhere, even in countries like Japan. When I went in June of 2013, most of the people I saw walking in the street already had a fair complexion. It wasn’t uncommon to see women wearing thin, plastic black visors that shielded their faces from the darkening effects of the sun. Maybe they are just paranoid of skin cancer, I thought. Then, I walked into beauty supply shops and was stunned by the amount of skin whitening creams. The people here seem white enough to me, but they want to be even whiter? I thought. I wonder when being brown will no longer be considered as being inferior. This is the underlying question I ask myself when my friends and I have our long discussions about race.
Three hours later, it was time to go. Enrique picked up me and took me to the Peace Corps Office, where we prepped for the next day’s training. Since we had already done most of the planning last time, all we had to do was streamline the presentation. Two months ago, on the night before the training, I remember being so nervous because I didn’t know how the staff would react to us coming out to them and discussing sexuality. This time, I knew it would be okay. When we finishing prepping, Diego asked if anyone wanted to get donuts at the “Dunkin’ Donuts Lounge”. I was so full of pita chips that I hesitated, but the prospect of air conditioning and comfy couches convinced me to join in. Diego told me not to get my hopes up, but I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of “Dunkin’ Donuts”, it’s called “American Donuts”. We sat down on the huge, comfy beige couch. Diego had coffee with regular donuts, and I had a Boston Creme Pie donut. I could immediately taste the difference between this one and the donut I had in the Houston airport last week. This one didn’t taste like chemicals. The filling tasted more like actual pudding than the sugary sludge I’m used to.
Diego and I started chatting about traveling. Every day I’m grateful for working with so many people who are just as excited to talk about traveling as I am. I no longer feel as that restless girl who just needs to settle down and be content where she is. I think that’s how my coworkers saw me at my old jobs. Diego and I somehow started chatting about Panama City. Apparently it’s one of the most developed cities in Central America. I had no idea. He compared Panama City to Miami because both have an impressive skyline, a diverse population of locals and foreigners, and a ton of different things to see, eat, and do. He showed me pictures of beaches on the Atlantic Coast, and I was mentally drooling. The water was crystal clear and the beaches were made of white sand (hmm, since when were whiter beaches ‘better’ than brown beaches?). Diego and I leaned back on the couch and rested, enjoying the relaxing vibe at the Dunkin’ Lounge. The couches were large and fluffy, and they reminded me of the couch I laid on at my friend Danielle’s house near Boston. I had a little taste of America in Managua. Maybe I will go to Panama, I thought. Central America has more to offer than I imagined.
I slept soundly at the hostel that night, then woke up at my usual 6 AM time to get ready for the day. I showered and slipped on my flip-flops to grab breakfast from the corner store in front of the hostel. I ordered my usual huevos rancheros to go. While I waited with Tomas, a small, thin South Asian woman named Yasmine began talking to us. She had black hair that was cut into a chin-length bob, and had very expressive eyes and hands. She moved slowly and took her time. She asked us if we were Peace Corps Volunteers, and I asked her how her trip was and where she was from. She said she was from Eastern Canada, and that she was wrapping up for 3 week long trip. She described her visit as “very strange” because although she works at a bank, she ended up taking care of people who were sick wherever she stayed. It looked as if she were here to have time to herself and to recharge, but she ended up playing the role of a doctor. The island of Ometepe was too crowded, she said, so she went from place to place until she found her own little secluded beach on the Pacific Coast. I forgot the name of it, but I’m happy she found it.
I ended up eating my food with her to chat some more. I appreciated the calm energy she gave off. She moved slowly and didn’t rush the conversation. She asked about my work. I mentioned that after being a Peace Corps volunteer, I’m so much more critical of large organizations that funnel millions of dollars for the sake of development. Since my work is so hands on, I don’t really understand where all the money goes. My schools still don’t even have toilet paper. When I’ve spoken to development professionals about where development funds actually go or who works with the money on the ground, I can never get a straightforward answer, I said. “That’s good. Keep asking questions”, she said. “Be gentle, but firm. You can’t be aggressive. The only way to get anything done is to be gentle and persistent. That’s great that you are asking all of these questions. Don’t stop asking because you are the future.” It was nice to hear this from a stranger. It was one of the most unexpectedly reassuring conversations I’ve had. I wrote my email down on a napkin, and told her to visit me in the mountains if she made it back. She complimented me on my turquoise earrings that Raquel brought me from Puerto Rico, and she said she’d “drop me a line”.
I hung around the office until 1 o’clock, when the LGBTQ training for staff began. This time, there were only 9 office staff members, as opposed to the 22 we trained in February. While we don’t interact with the office staff nearly as much as the Spanish teachers, this training was essential for them to at least know how to talk to queer volunteers or queer people in general. We cruised right through the terminology component, defining terms like “gay”, “Gay man”, and “transgender”, all of which we explained in detail. Staff members seem to be the most confused about what “transgender” means, so we explained that it means someone who identifies with a gender that corresponds differently from that of their biological sex. A few minutes into the training, one staff member asked me “how did you first know you were gay?”, and I told the group that I’d been attracted to girls since I was a little girl, but that I had so much internalized homophobia that I didn’t come out until I was 18. She then mentioned that one of her relatives had told her that he was questioning his sexuality, and that she didn’t know how to handle the situation. I reassured her that it’s great that he felt comfortable enough to tell her that, and that it was okay for her to not have any answers. Sometimes, all people need sometimes is someone to talk to. Pete related this story to how, as a volunteer, he used to feel homesick. He would talk to his host mom about missing home, and although she couldn’t do anything to fix his desire to go back home, she at least listened. I thought that was a useful analogy for the staff to remember. They don’t need to be gender experts, but they just need to listen.
After we defined the myriad of gender identities and orientations, Ilana added another one: “pansexual”. She joked that no, it doesn’t mean you are sexually attracted to bread (“pan” in Spanish), but that you are attracted to the person rather than focusing so much on their gender. After this, a staff member shook his head, crossed his arms, leaned back, and said, “I’m 50 years old. I thought I was done learning, but it looks like I’m going to learn today”. We all laughed. I made a Kevin Hart reference to the person next to me, which I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand, and we moved on. Near the end, it was time for the staff to read situations involving volunteers and staff and to act them out as role-plays. One thing I appreciated from the staff is that they took their time with the role-plays, making the conversations seem more real. We praised one staff member for apologizing for assuming the orientation of the volunteer during the role-play, which was great. We also joked that another staff member should win an Oscar for her acting skills. In February, the volunteers and I acted out the situations. This time, it was more fun watching the staff act out the situations. It was another successful training, and the staff thanked us and gave us a round of applause. Although the office staff doesn’t interact with volunteers nearly as much as the facilitators do, I could tell that we still made them think differently about gender.