Thankfully, things are cheap in Nicaragua. About a month ago, a volunteer in the neighboring mountainous department of Jinotega, told us about a 10k (About 6.2 miles) that her town, San Rafael del Norte, was hosting. I immediately became interested. After seeing that it would only cost $10 for food, lodging, and to enter the race, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d never ran a race longer than 3 miles, so I was nervous yet excited about running my first 10k. As for training, I just told myself that I would work out every day for the week before the race. I’ve always worked out at least every other day, so this was just a stricter regimen. I ended up going running twice that week and doing insanity workout videos the rest of the time. The only thing that changed about my diet was that since I worked out more, I was hungrier, and ate more. Oh, and I decided not to drink alcohol. Well, my meager stipend usually reinforces that decision, so that was never really an issue to start with. In the states, I’d drink 1-2 beers a day. Now, it’s 1-3 a week. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my fitness secret. Great things happen to your body when you can’t afford alcohol!
The race would take place on Sunday, but I had to leave on Saturday to attend a meeting at 4 PM. I reluctantly packed my things, wishing I could just stay in my cozy house in my cozy bed watching “Grown Ups 2”. I’m usually a very restless person who is always dying to travel, but I’m so comfortable in my site that leaving has lately become a chore. Aside from spending the night in Managua to give the lgbtq training to staff, I hadn’t taken any out of site nights in February. I’ve turned into such a homebody lately. This was highly concerning and I knew that I needed to get out, even if I didn’t want to.
The slow drive up the winding road to Jinotega was gorgeous. As soon as I’d begun snapping pictures of the deep, green valleys and golden, rolling hills, I was happy I’d decided to travel this weekend. As the weather became chillier, I felt as if I were in the states more and more. By chilly, I mean that I had been tempted to put on my sweater. It was probably 65 degrees. It took about an hour and a half to get to Jinotega, which is the sleepy yet relatively large department capital. The department of Jinotega apparently experienced much of the fighting between the Sandinistas and the Contras in the 1980s. Now, Jinotega is known for cattle and coffee production. As soon as I got off the bus, I could just feel how much farther I was away from Matagalpa. Jinotega just felt like it was an extra step away from the hustle and bustle I’d been so used to. I received stares, but no cat calls, as I looked for a cab. Something was definitely off because of the lack of attention my gender was receiving, but I was fine with it. I asked my cab driver to take me to the North station, and he consequently asked me if I was married, as people do here. No, I said. And no, I didn’t have a boyfriend. I came out to him, and we talked about what it was like to be gay here. He then asked me “I’m sure that being a foreigner in this country comes with a lot of difficulties, right?”. I just chuckled. Compared to my life in the states, working in Nicaragua was a dream. “Yo trabajaba como loca, 50-60 horas por la semana. No podia disfrutar la vida como la disfruto aqui. La vida es mas tranquila aqui”. Sure, I do miss Target runs and actual cheeseburgers, but overall, I’m much happier here. Yes, I work, but I no longer consider each week isn’t such an intense countdown to Friday as it was back home.
The cab driver seemed pretty open minded as we talked about all of these things in about 5 minutes. I thought about asking for his phone number since he was gay-friendly. I have my own gay-friendly driver in my site who I trust, and in hindsight, I wished I’d added this Jinotega driver to my contacts list. It’s nice to enter a cab without wondering how your sexual orientation will be judged, since it’s inevitable that you’ll be questioned about your marital status. I’ve been more up front about my orientation more and more, because I’m tired of pretending that I’m just “too busy traveling to find a husband”. Right before I got out of the cab, he asked me “One last thing. Aren’t you young to be traveling alone?”. “I’m 24”, I responded, as if that were obviously old enough. To him, it was not. “That’s what I mean”, he said. “Oh, I’ve been traveling since I emigrated from Mexico when I was three. I’m used to it”, I said, as he directed me to opening the door with the handle from the outside of the door.
I ended up standing for another hour on the cramped bus to San Rafael, and was happy when the bus rolled into town. As I unloaded my things, the cobradors jokingly spoke in English to me, saying things like “How are you?”. I’m easily impressed with anything more than a “bye bye” these days. Officially, cobradors are the men who charge the bus fares. Unofficially, they might as well by Cirque du Soleil performers, as I’ve seen them dangle from places on a bus that one might never imagine a human could latch onto while a bus is moving at 50 miles per hour. They have quick math skills and a sharp memory, as they’re in charge of knowing who is on the bus and when they get on to adjust the fares accordingly. I’ve only seen one female cobradora in the department of Masaya. She was a badass.
I got off near the main church and stopped to watch some teenage boys play basketball. I then met up with the other volunteers at “Snoopy’s”, a restaurant with walls that are decked out in Snoopy characters. It was 4 o’clock, which is when our meeting would be, but we figured they would start late, as just about everything else does here. The only thing people are ever early for here is for payday. All of a sudden, people don’t have anything “come up” an hour before banks open on the 15th and 30th of every month. For everything else, it’s okay to be late. While ordering my food at the restaurant, I told the young woman taking my order how much I loved the Snoopy paintings. “Thanks, it’s my mom’s favorite cartoon”, she said with her big smile and bright green eyes. I sipped on freshly made carrot juice and ate two fried tacos with shredded beef, cabbage, and ketchup on top. Next time, I need to remember to say: No ketchup. Ketchup should not exist. Yuck. Other than the intrusion of ketchup into my delicious meal, it was great catching up with the other volunteers. Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only Peace Corps volunteer in the world, until I chat with the other people who are in a similar boat as I am. It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one who knows what an actual cheeseburger tastes like. However, we all know we wouldn’t give up our service for anything. Side note: I’ll be in the states in three weeks. I can’t wait to have a cheeseburger. And I don’t even care if it has ketchup on it.
We hiked up the largest hill that a flat town has ever had to get to the church. Apparently it was 5 o’clock and the meeting had wrapped up. We ended up being so late that we actually missed something. What was more baffling was that the meeting had actually started on time. Things were definitely different here in Jinotega. The church grounds were crowded with runners from all over Central America, including a team from Costa Rica. There were even runners from Japan participating. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. We were shown our rooms, and I decided to be in charge of the key. I find myself taking charge in situations more and more often these days. I think the Peace Corps just brings out the Wellesley Woman in me even more. While we waited for our food at dinner, I was called to the linens room to get a mattress cover for our beds. Since I was cold, I asked for pillows and blankets. “Come back later”, said a man who handed me the covers.
I went back to dinner and stood in line for some gallo pinto, cuajada, and a tortilla with the other volunteers. Right before my meal, the man with the covers called me to the linens room, as if he had the biggest secret surprise to share with me. He had a sneaky grin on his face as he rubbed his hands together and told me that he had pillows and blankets for me. “If anyone asks, tell them you had to pay. That’s how you get people to not ask for things here”. I thanked him for the cultural insight, and we chatted about the Lakers and the Steelers. He was really into talking about sports, and I pretended to be interested, as I always do when people get excited about things like this. I thanked him for the favor as I shook his hand, and went back to dinner. I wished I had water. The only beverage offered was coffee, so I sipped on Davita’s water bottle.
Dear World: Coffee is for waking up in the morning. Night time is for sleeping. That night, I didn’t get much sleep. It was as if I’d been sentenced to a night of remembering everything I didn’t like about running crosscountry: loud, hormonal teenagers in short shorts. As I put my ear plugs in, the youth decided to practice running sprints up and down the halls. Other people didn’t seem to need sleep to function, and were up talking. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep until the next night. At about 12 AM, two boys kocked on our door, looking for “Alba”. No, Alba was not here. Why was I here and not in my comfy bed at home? Why did I sign up for this?
We got up at 4:30 and I put my shorts on over my leggings. They served us a breakfast of coffee, white bread with pineapple jelly, and mixed fruit. I don’t like to eat before running, but who knew when the actual race would start, since things take a while to get going here. By 5:30, the other volunteers and I headed to the park. The other runners were already loaded onto the buses. Again, we were late. We sped walked to the last bus and climbed in. It dropped us off 10 kilometers outside of town, and half of us headed straight for the nearest houses to use the latrines. Who knew when we’d actually start running. It’s better to take care of business before running than while running, anyway. The weather was chilly, and I was glad to have worn layers. Fields of cabbages and carrots surrounded us. A farmer, who was probably up earlier than we were, watered his crops with a hose. Eventually, someone set off four fireworks. After having barely slept, I actually wasn’t in the mood for loud crackling noises. By 7:35, we finally lined up. A priest had us say the “our father” prayer and sprinkled us with holy water. One of the organizers ended by saying “Happy International Women’s Day! Women are the (insert cheesy noun that I don’t remember here) of the world!”. The smile of the world? The glory of the world? Whatever he said, he made us say “Aww”. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. After sitting on the road, stretching, and laying down on the road as trucks full of angry cows passed us, I was ready to roll.
At 7:45, we began the race! I struggled to pick up the pace while listening to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off”. I felt unusually heavy and sluggish, as if I’d just emerged from a pool after an hour of swimming. I took a sip from my water bottle and poured the rest on my head, and noticed that there were no trash cans in the countryside. Luckily, I asked a woman driving next to me if she could take my water bottle, and she smiled and pointed to the area under the glove compartment. I thanked her and trotted along with water all over me. About a half mile into it, I started to pick up the pace, and ran alongside Andrew for most of it. I usually don’t like running with people because I think too much about how their pace compares to mine, but our pace was pretty much in synch. We fist bumped one another and pumped each other up. I stopped to walk three times because my stomach was hurting and because I’d pushed myself too much going downhill, but I never failed to get right back on track. Kids on the side of the road handed us small bags of water to drink. I ripped them open with my teeth and splashed the water on my face. Pretty soon, I took off my t-shirt and was still left with my long-sleeved shirt.
In all, it was perfect running weather. The clouds protected us from the beating sun, and a slight drizzle cooled us down. After each hill, there was a forgiving downhill. “We’ve got such a tough job”, Andrew joked. “Oh, yeah, so tough”, I said, with a huge smile on my face, as I marveled at the gorgeous mountains and fields surrounding us. There was nothing better. I only wish I’d signed up for the half-marathon so that I could have enjoyed the view for longer. Vans decked out with speakers blasted dance music as they passed us, and the locals stood by the highway to stare at this mob of people running toward San Rafael. I’m used to getting stared at since not many people run here, and even fewer women run here. The last downhill was epic. It just kept going, and I felt as if the finish line were just around the corner. As soon as I finished flying downhill, I realized that I’d used up my energy sprinting down it, and Andrew passed me as it went back up. Eventually, I saw the gate to the city, and I mistook it for the finish line. I stopped and wondered “where is everybody?”. Apparently the finish line was still ahead, so I picked things up.
About 50 feet near the finish line, I felt someone about to pass me, so I sprinted. As soon as I crossed through, a woman in a pink baseball cap handed me a slip that said “Mujer, 3”. Apparently I’d won third place! I’d never even thought about placing. It was a pleasant surprise that only became more real to me after I chugged 7 cups of yellow Powerade and chomped down on some salted mango in a bag. My quadriceps were cramping, so I stretched a bit. I’d never ran so far, so fast. I finished in about an hour. I went back to chat with the lady who gave me the slip in order to confirm that yes, I had won third place in the International Women’s category. This was very fitting, as it was International Women’s Day. It turned out that this lady was a heavy lifter based in Managua, and she’d competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It wasn’t even 9 AM and I’d already felt like an Olympian and met an Olympian.
About an hour later, I was called to the stage to stand on the 3rd place mark. A lady asked me where I was from as I bowed my head to let her hang the medal around my neck. She gave us all a kiss on the cheek. My medal had a picture of a priest, Odorico D’ Andrea, (who is now a Saint) on it. The 10k is done to commemorate him and to raise funds for the church. It felt surreal getting a medal, because I hadn’t even thought this would be a possibility. I also got a goody bag with a towel, a hat, anti-soreness cream, and a water bottle. This 10k was the best $10 investment I’d ever made. On the bus back to Jinotega, I was so happy to be sitting down after all that running. I got off at the bus station and explored the city for a bit, ultimately rewarding myself with a Toña beer with lime at El Tio. After that, I boarded a Matagalpa-bound bus. A small boy in a bright green shirt squeezed himself right next to me. Since people are used to squeezing together (chineando) on buses, I wasn’t fazed that he’d done this. We both held onto the front seat as the bus twisted and turned. “This bus is like a rollercoaster, isn’t it?”, I quietly said to the boy. His bright brown eyes looked up as he smiled and nodded.