Today I realized that the 20-year old Meskite (an indigenous community of Nicaragua) woman I was tutoring in English once a week actually left her mom on the Caribbean coast 2 years ago in order to search for work and in order to further her education. She works taking care of a family’s home and she attends night school. She is about to graduate from high school and hopes to study nursing. It was so cool hearing her speak on the phone in Meskito. I told her to teach me some if I am going to keep teaching her English : ) We had a short but meaningful conversation during which we agreed that sometimes you just have to leave your family in order to pursue an education. She only sees her family during Christmas, and it takes her two days to get home, by bus and by boat. She reminded me of how I went to college far away from home because it was the most affordable option and the best education available to me. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have been comfortable traveling at all. She is a true testament to the power of education as a tool for social mobility, and I encouraged her to stay this motivated. It will all work out for her if she’s come this far.
Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about my life here. I’m in my permanent site now, and I’ve been much busier than I had anticipated. People always tell you about how much free time you have in the Peace Corps, but I had enough free time during training to last a lifetime. I knew that I needed to stay busy if I were to have a successful two years of service. I swore in as an official volunteer only two weeks ago, but I felt as if I had been here longer. I say this in no way to imply that time has gone by slowly, but to suggest that I’ve been able to meet so many people and do so much more than I thought I could do in just two short weeks. I wish I could write about each of my days here, but I had to make the easy decision of either doing that or watching Breaking Bad. I’m only on season 2, which probably came out around 2011, but I wasn’t the biggest TV fan in the states to begin with. I have lots to catch up on.
Today, one of program specialists, Aleyda, came to visit me from Managua (a 2.5 hour drive away). She pulled up outside of my apartment, and I met her with a bag of pastries from the market. Nicaraguans love giving and receiving little treats (as do most humans), and that trait has especially rubbed off on me here. I said. “You look so happy!” was one of the first things she told me. I couldn’t agree more. When people ask me if I like it here, I just close my eyes, nod, and grin. Yes, I friggin’ love it here. We walked up the 45 degree hill to my apartment, and I told her: “So, welcome to heaven on earth.” I placed two plastic chairs on our balcony so that I could show off the view of the mountainous city to her. Clouds caressed the green mountains, and droplets of rain teased us, making us shift in our chairs as we contemplated going inside. She asked me how my personal and work life was, and I had little to no complaints. Busy Char is a happy Char-that was the gist of the conversation.
As for things to do when we get to our sites, I had most of it covered. I know which hotel is our consolidation point in case of emergencies, and I have its phone number. I just needed to go introduce myself to the police in order to better ensure my safety. I feel pretty safe here, at least during the day. I never completely felt safe at night anywhere except for at Wellesley. The worst that could happen would be that a raccoon could jump out of a dumpster at night and scare you.
Aleyda and I had a great time catching up. I feel as if she’s known me for much more than just three months. That’s how I feel about most people I’ve worked with in the Peace Corps. We have spent so many hours together, sitting through workshops, getting cat called when walking to the grocery store, and riding on jam-packed buses together that we all feel pretty close. I told her how much I felt like I was at home here. Throughout my life, I have been a pretty restless person. When I lived in Washington, I was restless, but I didn’t know for what. When I went to school in Boston, I wanted to be in a warmer city (temperature and personality-wise). When I studied in France for 5 months, life was so easy and wonderful that I had to get out on weekends to explore other countries while I had the chance. After moving to Texas, I was a fish out of water. I’d felt more out of place there than I had felt in other countries. So, I moved back to Boston and grew professionally, but I still knew there was something bigger out there. I finally feel content in Nicaragua, but who’s to say that won’t change soon. My soul feels like it’s in the right place at the right time, and this is an extreme rarity for me.
I feel more useful here than I’ve ever felt before. Each day, people come up and ask me questions about myself and about English. The other day, I was stuck inside of the market during a downpour and the ladies who sold me eggs were asking about my work. Then, Glenda, a 15-year-old girl working in the market, asked me to teach her English. She offered to pay, but I insisted that I do not accept payment. If I did, I wouldn’t be a volunteer. I asked her to find a few other friends who would want to learn English, and we met two days later in her house. Two other bright-eyed teenage girls, Glenda, and I spent an hour making flashcards about diseases (this was what they were studying in school). I improvised a lesson on this, since I’d already taught to this theme with Tania. We went over how to pronounce things like “aspirin” and “stomach ache”. “Stomach ache” is almost impossible to teach until you spell out the literal pronunciation: “Stomak ake”. We took turns acting out different ailments, and giggled at each other’s interpretations. I told them that all I expected from them was to be okay with making mistakes and to make me laugh (which they were already experts in).
Aleyda and I soon went inside after it began to rain. I gave her an iced water, and her final question was this: “How can I support you?”. I just smiled. We both knew what I was thinking. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. If you could send us articles on teaching that would be great.” She read my mind, though. She knew that I was doing pretty well so far and that I didn’t need too much support. The time will come when I will reach out to her, though. Maybe I will next week, when I have to write a cover letter to apply for an education volunteer position with the Matagalpa Women’s Collective. I’ve never written a cover letter in Spanish, so I’ll need her help.
By about 10:30, it was time for her to visit another volunteer. I hugged her goodbye and slowly inched her way down the slippery hill in her heels. I went back inside and continued to cook the black beans that I’d soaked the night before. After about 2 hours of cooking, they still weren’t ready. My host sister’s were ready in a half hour and she hadn’t even soaked hers overnight! She had one thing I did not: a pressure cooker. I enviously eyed her pressure cooker as I continued boiling my beans. She suggested that I add garlic to them, which I diced and sprinkled into the pot. Typically, Nicaraguans eat red beans. They are a bit pricey right now (over $1/pound) as opposed to the more nutritious yet less desired black beans (which cost $.60/pound). It was 11 am and I was getting hungry, so I snacked on a hard-boiled egg with hot sauce and flew out the door to meet my counterpart’s 11th graders.
In Nicaragua, 11th grade is the final year of high schools. Some school allow 9th graders to “graduate” in a technical field, while others choose to continue on to 11th grade. And by choose, I mean “they are are lucky enough”. Due to teen pregnancy rates, the poor economy, and drug use, most students do not make it to the 11th grade. Some kids’ families cannot afford to let their child attend school. Some of them need them to stay and run their home-based convenience stores. Poverty explains so many things here (as in the states). By 11:30, I was hiking up to the hill to the school. Yes, hiking. This is a very mountainous town. I don’t formally “work out” nearly as much as I used to, since just getting from one side of town to another makes me feel accomplished enough. By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was covered in sweat. I had to take a second to let the breeze cool me down slightly. Then, I walked with my counterpart to the 11th grade classroom.
The student count was noticeably smaller that in the lower grades. I was hoping these students would be as apathetic as other upper-level kids I’ve worked with. Behaviorally, they are less of an issue because they have longer attention spans, but from my experience, they are so checked out at this age that they have lost interest in the content. As soon as I walked in, I was met with smiles and curious stares. “They have been waiting anxiously to meet you”, said my counterpart. Apparently they had been asking her for weeks when the gringa (myself) would come teach them English. The gringa then wrote the date on the board and then wrote “My name is Teacher Charleen”, which they immediately tried pronounced. I clarified that my name is not “muchacha” (young woman), but “Teacher Charleen”. They laughed because students all over the schools thought that they could just call me “muchacha”.
I began by explaining in Spanish to them that I would mostly be speaking in English, since if I were translating everything from English to Spanish for them, then it would be a translation class and they wouldn’t learn anything. They responded well to this mostly, while others still jokingly said “I don’t speak English” and “We are timid”. We all just laughed and I continued to speak in English as I took attendance and looked at each student in order to put a name to a face. The boys in this class were more vocal than the girls, but overall it was a positive place to be. The topic was adverbs of frequency and chores, so I had them chorally repeat sentences like “I always eat gallo pinto”, as I acted them out. “I sometimes take a shower”, was what the boys said. The boys especially got into acting the sentences out. I’m surprised at how interested they are in pronunciation. They also laugh at the way my mouth has to move when I over-emphasize the words in English. Spanish is a soft, sensual romance language. English is Germanic, more rough, and direct. The consonants are emphasized much more. We all laughed together in the 45 minute class, and hopefully they walked away with more confidence in speaking English. At the end, I told them I’d had the most fun with them because they were excited to participate and weren’t as afraid as other classes to make mistakes. “Keep doing that in whatever it is you do”, I advised them. I clapped my hands to signal the end of class, said goodbye, and went left.
While I had beans waiting for me on the stove, I didn’t have sides to compliment them, so I went to the cheese store and bought $2 log of quajada, a type of cheese that looks like fresh mozzarella and tastes like queso fresco. It comes in a simple plastic bag and is sealed with some of the cream used to make it. I asked the man who sold it to me if he had tortillas, but he did not. I asked him where I could find some, then he stepped outside to show me where to find them. While giving me directions, he called me “his queen” and “love”, but in the least creepy way possible. I know I’ll miss being called these kinds of things during the most routine parts of my day. Women at the market call each other “love” as well. “Que busca, mi amor?”, they will often say to one another to find out what it is their customers are looking for. The people here may not have much, but they sure know how to make others feel loved and appreciated. In the states, it’s as if we need an excuse to tell people how much we appreciate one another. We save it for an anniversary, birthday, or Valentine’s day.
Here, I will even receive mass texts from my Nica friends that tell me that I’m special and appreciated. This is my favorite mass text: Pensando en ti, descubri que la vida da cosas de mucho valor, que eres una obra de Dios, dificil de crear pero facil de querer, dificil de ver pero imposible de olvidar, pore so antes de que el tiempo pasey se borren las huellas, te guarde en mi Corazon para que vives eternamente en el.
Yes, it’s insanely cheesy, and that’s why I love it.
After buying the cheese, I headed over to the market and said hi to Glenda, who I’d just taught the day before. They pointed me to the tortilla ladies, who I asked for 4 fresh tortillas. One of them scooped out balls of masa and pounded them into shape on thin plastic sheets. She had the hands of a karate master. I admired her strength, and mentioned that this must be a great work out. I wouldn’t want to mess with her and her biceps that made Michelle Obama’s look like a joke. Another woman in an apron effortlessly flipped tortilla after tortilla on the hot, black griddle. One of them filled with hot air. I wanted to puncture it, but that would have been weird. Before I could be tempted any further, she scooped 4 of them into a clear plastic bag. I wanted these ladies to take their time so that I could bask in the scent of the corn on the griddle (one of my favorite smells). Each tortilla cost only 3 cents. I dropped the 4 cordobas it cost me into a plastic tub, thanked them, and gripped the hot bag from the top instead of holding the tortillas, which were so fresh that they felt as if they could melt right through the plastic. I hiked back home and ate beans, salsa, 4 tortillas (yikes!), and almost half the log of quajada. I’d been tired of eating eggs and potatoes, so this was a nice deviation from my routine meal. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching Breaking Bad and checked my email at the library.
Around 5:30, I headed to the women’s collective for their improvisational theater show. I had already been to last month’s show during my site visit, so I was eager to see the final show of the year. This month’s theme is “Queremos vivir sin violencia”, or “We want to live without violence”. This is the basic run-down of the show. Without audience members, there would be no material. Audience members are asked to come up to the front and share their stories and emotions with the cast and viewers. These are emotional shows, but the brilliant part is that the actresses often curtail the overwhelming negativity of these experiences with comedic relief. As a warm-up, we were asked how we were feeling, in order to give the actresses lighter material to start with. One woman said she felt sadness and nostalgia to be watching the final show of the year, which was how most of us felt. The actresses curled up into an entwined ball to express how we felt, and one of them kept saying “What am I going to do in December? The show is over, so what am I going to do?”. This was kind of what I was thinking, so I laughed out loud. The show is only once a month, but still- what am I going to do during a month without this amazing spectacle? Laughter filled the room with joy.
I was the second volunteer to tell my story to the audience. Last time I had thought about going up to have the four women perform my experience, but I was too nervous and awestruck to get out of my seat. This time, after having been able to spend time with the women and knowing their names, I jumped up and told my story for them to act out. I won’t divulge my story here because it was so personal, but I will say that the actresses’ interpretation of my experience was expressed as a tension between appreciating and not forgiving a person who has both helped and hurt me in high school. It wasn’t physical violence, but it was definitely verbal and emotional violence that no one should ever have to endure. Two of the women stood in front, as if they were trying to fight for what they wanted, while the other two behind them were holding them back. Their two-minute performance perfectly expressed my experience, which I hadn’t told to very many people. The actresses and I gave each other a long look of understanding at the end, and I thanked them sincerely for helping me deal with an emotion that I had locked away as a distant memory.
After I went, other audience members told us their stories about how they were abused or knew others who were abused. The show continued as some audience members giggled, others teared up, and all of us walked away having felt as if we weren’t alone in our experiences. That’s the beauty of this form of theater. It is made from the shared experiences of those brave enough to share them with strangers and friends alike. I headed home with two women my age that I’d seen at the collective before. One of them is from Barcelona, and the other is from Germany. We exchanged numbers and agreed to hang out this weekend. I’m long overdue for some salsa dancing, so hopefully that will happen soon. Overall, it was a pretty eventful Thursday. Busy Char is indeed a very happy Char.
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