This Chick’s Life: The 27-Month Cycle and Other Tales from Va Pue

My sitemate Alison and I co-wrote an article that we featured in October’s issue of Va Pue, the PCV magazine that I help edit. This article is Alison’s brain child.  I thought I’d share it with you guys.  If you want the complete issue of Va Pue, just ask me for it and I’ll e-mail it to you.

Part I: You’re a Chicken.

I expected to feel a lot of things during my Peace Corps service, but I never expected to feel like a chicken.  Not a chicken in the frightened or scared sense of the word, but rather, as an actual feathered fowl.   

It began during my first month in site.  Shortly after my arrival, six tiny yellow balls of fluff peeked out of their shells and joined me in this new world I found myself in. I would watch for hours from my hammock as they chirped, cheeped, twittered, and tweeted, through the patio on their twig legs.  Each step for them an adventure, announced with an exultant peeping cry.   They were so cute, and so new, and different than what I had expected.  Of course I had seen chicks before on Easter cards and in movies, but to have a real, live group of them so close to me was thrilling.

I began to see that my presence in the community had a similar effect.  People looked on with awe as I walked through the streets.  Baby chicks were old news for them—but a real live gringa?! Cho-Cho! My broken Spanish was “ay que linda!” and “que tan precioooooosa”.  People came out of their houses to watch me walk by and excited children called up from the river, “Mirá—allá va la gringa.  Allá va la ALISON!”  I felt like a celebrity; I could do no wrong.  Like the chicks, each step outside the house was an adventure.  And I looked ahead to the next two years with enough enthusiasm that I wanted to cry out in joy as well.    

And then something awkward happened.  I watched as the chicks’ golden plumes gave way to sparse, dingy feathers.  Their legs grew in too fast and they looked like they were going to fall on their face with each step.   By this point they had ventured away from their mother, but with no real place to go, ambled around the patio looking lost and frantic.  Oh and their necks—their poor, bald, ugly necks!  I looked on from my aerial perch, worried about the transformation I was observing.

I worried because I too was going through a transformation.  It was January by now, two months into site.  The enthusiasm I had initially felt when I arrived in my community had begun to fade.   My stumbling Spanish was no longer cute and my presence in town was no longer novel.  School hadn’t started and I, like the chickens, had no place to be.  So I too wandered around the community looking awkward and lost.  Just being foreign and a gringa didn’t seem to mean as much as it once did, and I wasn’t sure yet what more I could offer. This was the point in service when from one hour to the next my day would vacillate between roaring adventure in a bright new land and overwhelming irrevocable mistakes in a strange place.  It was a lonely time and I didn’t even have my pretty chick friends to cheer me up.

Eventually the chickens grew out of their awkward adolescence and became hens and roosters.  They adapted a more comfortable gait and sprouted beautiful feathers, in scarlet reds, brilliant oranges, sea greens, and deep blues that covered their whole body, neck included—thank god.  They had a purpose and were of use: the morning alarm bell, the givers of eggs, the star ingredient in a Sunday soup.  I saw their life come full circle and they became a metaphor for me and my Peace Corps service.  I became one with the chickens and I dreamt of the day when my feathers would fill in, when I too would be a useful, contributing member of my community.

The six chicks I watched grow during my first year of service are now indistinguishable from the other twenty that roam the patio.  I never evolved that far; my blond hair and white skin still makes it impossible for me to blend in completely.   But as my service comes to an end, I can finally strut through my community like one of those regal roosters in the patio.  Head held high and chest stuck out, I can say that I have contributed something here.  I taught hundreds of classes, got my hands dirty cleaning up trash, and sweated my little, white butt off building stoves.  My hope for my Peace Corps service is that my actions—like the final action of a chicken that gives its life for the Sunday soup—will give sustenance and energy to the community that I have come to love.

Part II: Everybody Else is a Chicken, Too.

Have you been feeling like an awkward chicken that’s not quite ready to break out of its shell? Perhaps you’ve been feeling more like a headless chicken, running around frantically, but without much purpose.  Worry not: we’ve all been there.  In fact, it’s scientifically proven—at least according to a couple PCVs from Senegal who wrote the notorious “Critical Periods in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer” chart that we all got during pre-service training.  Check out what kind of chicken you are, based on where you’re at in your 27-month cycle:

If you are in Nica 60 (1-2 months)….

You are a Caged Chicken, my friend.  While training can be a great opportunity to make new friends, you may begin to feel trapped in a training cycle that has too much structure and too much routine.  Learning Spanish is hard.  When I was a trainee, by the end of the day, I could hardly speak English, let alone Spanish.  And you could often find me asleep by 8 PM.  You may feel exhausted, and that’s OK.  As a result, you might find yourself getting irritated at small things or feeling anxious and withdrawn. Go explore  nearby cities like Jinotepe or Masaya, get to know Peace Corps staff, and truly enjoy the company of your training buddies, because it’s the only time you’ll be in such close proximity to them; it won’t be long before you escape the coop and start your new life alone in site.

If you are in Nica 59 (3-6 months)…

You could be the Lonely, Chubby, or Homesick Chicken. Tough break. You are getting used to your new life, which is an adjustment.  As a result, you might be unsure of your role as a Peace Corps Volunteer and life in site might not be living up to your expectations. After three months with your training buddies, you’re likely to experience some loneliness.  Since you live with a host family, you might have less control over diet, which can cause changes in weight.  So here’s what you do: put those Peace Corps phone chips to use and reach out to PCV friends for support; they are likely going through the same thing. Try taking the time to research technical topics to use in the future (future you will be glad you did!), study Spanish, establish a routine and create a sense of home, get to know all of the NGOs and local actors in your town, and figure out some hobbies to do in public (eating in public places was always my favorite).

If you are in Nica 58 (7-10 months)…

Then you are the epitome of an Awkward Chicken—you’ve been in country for a while, but still haven’t quite found your niche.  You’re comparing yourself to other volunteers, which can lead to insecurities about your work progress.  You might be experiencing language plateaus or frustrations with Nica culture (after 10 months of piropos, enough is ENOUGH!).  Some ways to deal with these feelings could be to write e-mails and letters home, commiserate about slow starts and failures with PCV friends, and switch out an English novel to a Spanish one, or catch a Telenovela with your neighbors.

If you are in Nica 57 (11-15 months) …

You are a Chicken in Crisis.  This could possibly be the hardest part of your service; it was for me and for many of my friends.  Know that your mid-service crisis WILL pass.  It just takes time, talking over what you are feeling with friends and family, and perhaps a few tears during the more introspective moments of NBC’s Scrubs (that show just gets me…).  During your mid-service crisis, you might doubt your program, your role, yourself, and the system in which you work.  You’ve got a year in country, so you’re likely to have had some failures by now.  Reflecting on them might make you feel disillusioned. Yet, around the time you are thinking these dark thoughts, the new group of trainees  will come in, which presents a valuable opportunity:  take some time to get to know them and soak up their positive, hopeful, save-the-world attitudes.  Talking to them will make you realize all that you have accomplished since you were in their shoes a year ago.  Other ideas could be to take a mini-vacation to celebrate your one year in country, set specific goals for yourself for the year to come, and look for new relationships with organizations in your town.  You’ll be back to your chipper self soon.

If you are in Nica 56 (16-20 months)…

Congratulations, you are finally starting to come into your own as a true Gallo.  Your work load has likely increased—finally, people are starting to seek YOU out for work. Your community projects are starting to take off, and you’re realizing that ten months isn’t as long as it seems.  At the same time, you might be considering your options for life after Peace Corps.  At this stage, you will either become hyperactive or apathetic about your work, you could procrastinate, blame yourself for shortcomings, or downgrade your achievements. Some ideas could be to seek out new work opportunities in neighboring towns, visit or assist new volunteers, and start studying for the GREs.

If you are in Nica 55 (20-23 months)…

I don’t know how to break this to you, but you might be feeling like a Fried Chicken right now. You have a lot on your plate: you’re busy with finishing your projects and balancing your social life, all the while actively planning for life after Peace Corps.  This is mentally draining and sometimes you feel like you don’t have any control.  You could be feeling depressed about perceived lack of accomplishments, beginning to stress about your imminent departure, and you may have to admit to yourself that there will be goals that you won’t meet.  Try not to get too frustrated with yourself.  Instead, plan a vacation, think about project sustainability, create a four-month personal calendar, and give quality time to your colleagues and friends, because you’ll be saying goodbye to them before you know it.

If you are in Nica 54 (24-27 months)…

You may be no Spring Chicken in Nicaragua anymore, but you are about to embark on a whole new journey.  You will be dealing with the trauma of your departure, concerns about social reentry (there’s an app for that), merging your Nica identity with your US identity, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  As a result, you could be nervous, sad, anxious, panicky—or giddy, depending on your feelings on departure.  You might also find yourself oddly obsessed with planning and scheduling.  This is normal. Try to check up on the new trends in the States (Nica 60 may be able to help you out with that); analyze yourself: how you’ve grown, work you’ve accomplished, and how you’re going to communicate your experience with people from home; go to Masaya and shop for souvenirs; take pictures of yourself working and of your community, neighbors, and favorite places; make plans with Nica and PCV friends; tweak that resume; and transfer some of your wisdom and skills to the trainees—they’ll appreciate it.

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