Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood. Afresh dawns the morn of life. --Sir Richard Burton, The Devil Drives
We had spent our entire three-day orientation to the Peace Corps at the Best Western las Mercedes, which was right in front of the Managua airport. I still cannot believe that we had just crossed the street to our hotel on Wednesday. The next time we would leave the hotel would be on Saturday, which was when we would be sent to our training sites. We would live, study and work at these sites for the next three months until we would be sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers. We all savored the last of our all-you-can eat breakfast buffet. As if saying farewell to first-world comforts, I tipped the omelet chef while he made my concoction “con todo pero sin cebolla” (“with everything except without onion”). His tip jar had American money as well as cordabas (or “cords”). Unsurprisingly, people take American dollars here. It’s pretty easy to get around...and to tip the omelet chef.
We said goodbye to the Environmental volunteers, which made up more than half of our group of 41. Then came our van to take us on our ride to the small towns where our small groups would train. As soon as we drove away from the airport, we could see the shanties and the tin-roofed houses that make up many of Nicaragua’s houses. While we swam in the pool at our hotel, it was easy to deny that we were in Latin America’s poorest country. The ride to our training sites made this fact more visible. We drove through the country, past green fields and thick forests. We passed a huge pink pig who had its snout buried into a thatched bag of food. I wasn’t sure when I was going to be dropped off, but I knew that my town, Masatepe, would be the largest of the training sites. The night that I found out about my assignment, I searched for information online. The wikipedia page had one sentence on it, and mentioned that the population was about 15,000. I didn’t know much else about the town, and waited patiently as other volunteers were dropped off.
We were all packed into our van, and we cheered for each volunteer as they nervously emerged to meet their families. We stopped at one house in a rural town, and one of the language facilitators who worked with us asked “Quieren conocer a la casa?” (“Do you want to see the house?”). I ran inside to look at a house, and was welcomed by a picture of the current Pope. Some houses were more “developed” than others. One had chickens in the backyard, and others had flowers outside. What they did have in common was a secure entrance and protected windows. A Nicaraguan house is a fortress. Because theft is such a concern, all houses must be locked and bolted at night or whenever one is out. The gates were both functional and beautiful. If one were to protect one’s house, they would do it in style. Each house had their own unique ornamentation when it came to protective gates and bars around the windows.
After passing through these rainy towns, we reached my host mother’s house in Masatepe. The houses do not have numbers nor do they have “official” addresses. Our house is simply known as “the yellow two-storied house in front of the Baptist church”. Everyone knows one another, so this leaves out any confusion. This town reminded me of Bahia-de-Caraquez, Ecuador, with its bicycle-driven taxis and mototaxis. It is also a surprisingly clean town for the quantity of stray dogs prancing around. It’s definitely cleaner than where I studied in southern France, where it was hard to survive a walk to the boulangerie without sliding in dog excrement.
My house is in a central park of town. I live next to a cyber café, three cheese shops, a supermarket, a bank, and a Baptist church. I thought I would be roughing it…as in I thought I would have to walk more than 20 feet to get to the nearest cyber café. I’m not complaining at all, though! As soon as I greeted my host mom and abuelita (grandma), they assured me that they would take care of my anemic needs. “Te hicimos espinacas!” (“We made you spinach!”). I had made it a point that my only dietary need would that I needed to have extra iron. I didn’t know I was anemic until I spent time in Ecuador, where meat was a rarity because of the cost. My energy levels dropped until I started eating more meat.
My host mom was and abuelita (grandmother) were surprised that I already spoke Spanish, and this allowed us to dive right into conversation about everything, from the house rules, to the fact that my host grandmother’s favorite city to visit is Madrid. I ate my spinach omelet, beans, rice, queso fresco, and drank my fresh papaya juice before I would head to Spanish class. We passed through the courtyard to my room, and I was greeted by “Pinky”, the ten-year old dog that looks just as if Snoopy were a dachshund. The courtyard was full of cacti, hanging baskets, and cages. There are 4 lovebirds in 2 cages, and another healthy green parrot in a red cage. There’s also a yellow and black bird right outside my room. We dropped my things off in my room, which has a shower, toilet, and three-pronged power outlets! I guess I wouldn’t need my adaptor at all to charge my computer. Electricity costs a lot here, so I am asked to unplug my laptop when I am done charging it. My host mom told me about the water shortages that are common here, and the fact that the water shuts off frequently here. I had a barrel full of water in the shower, which I would use for a bucket bath in case of a water shortage. My bed was a full sized one at least, over which I’d need to install my mosquito net.
It was nice to be settled, for the next three months at least! I took a short nap, despite the fact that the roosters and parrots screeched and sang to one another. I was impressed with how easily I was able to sleep, especially as a light sleeper who has an earplug case in her purse for any occasion. I also heard some tapping on the tin roof above my room, and realized later that they were cats chasing the pigeons off the roof. I was definitely more in touch with nature than I have been since my lady-bug catching days as a kid.
After my nap, my host mom and abuelita got all dressed up to take me for a walk around town. I wore a t-shirt, jeans, and chaco sandals, so I felt a bit underdressed. Apparently, that outfit counts as business casual here, so I could wear that to work. We got shakes and iced coffee at a café nearby and chatted some more. My hosts have had countless volunteers and guests before me, so they were mentally preparing me for all the work I would have. Then, we walked to the park and took pictures by the Cathedral. While crossing the street, a truck cut us off, and my abuelita yelled “Bruto!” to him. It ended up being a policeman, but nothing happened. Business as usual. I like my hosts a lot. For dinner I had gallo pinto (beans and rice) with a hand made corn tortilla and more papaya juice. Then, we went outside to people watch and enjoy the rest of the night in our rocking chairs.
Rocking chairs are very popular here. My house has about 8 of them. I was wondering why the houses have so many, but I soon realized that it is because everyone is willing to have visitors walk up at any time to visit. The three of us rocked away while observing people walking up and down the busy street. I cut up two mangos in my lap on a plate, and covered the slices with salt to share with abuelita. People passed by, and I quickly discovered the word for “hello” here: “goodbye”. At first I couldn’t believe my ears, but I have quickly adopted saying “adios” to people. Right now as I write this, my host mom and abuelita are rocking away on their chairs, saying “adios!, adios!” to passersby. This has definitely been the most prominent linguistic oddity I’ve noticed since I’ve arrived. In a town like this, you run into almost everyone each day. Or, people can run into you if you are out on your porch. My host mom’s friends stopped by t stay hello, and one of them had an 18-year old German girl with her. I thought I would be the only gringa-looking girl in this town aside the girls in my group, but I was wrong! She also spoke French and Spanish, and she’d arrived three days ago. I’ve run intoa surprising amount of French speakers here.
Abuelita and I then ended the night with a plate of pioquinto, a liquor-infused, pudding-like dessert. It reminded me of my mom’s tiramisu that she expertly crafts with Twinkies and greek yogurt. I went into my room and got things ready for bed. I noticed that I wasn’t alone. There were clear-colored geckos lining my wall. As soon as I turned the light on, they froze and stared at me. I knew that after joining the Peace Corps, I’d have limited privacy, but I realized that I would be constantly be observed not only by humans, but by animals as well. One of the geckos even hissed at me for turning the light on. I wasn’t sure if they were a nuisance or not, but after seeing three, I decided to catch and release the one I could reach. I grabbed the bowl above my water barrel, and trapped the gecko, then I slid my Peace Corps Training manual under it. It made no noise, and I wondered if it was even inside the bowl. I let it go outside, and Pinky the happy hound came over to check if I was okay. The gecko scurried away, then froze to stare at me again. It didn’t treat me that much differently from the way the locals to so far. For now, they just look at me when I smile at them. A few return a smile if they have already seen me before. It will just take time for me to get integrated. Once people know who I am, I know they will be more likely to approach me. In the meantime, I’ll make myself known by peeling mangoes in the porch in my rocking chair, saying “Adios! Adios!”.