It’s only the beginning, after all.

My despedida (goodbye party) in La Dalia.  These are the people that got me through the two years :)

My despedida (goodbye party) in La Dalia. These are the people that supported me throughout my time there.  I’m the chelita in the back.

I thought it was over.  I bought a cake. I said my goodbyes.  I left.  I thought it was over, which is why I mourned so heavily over leaving.

But what I didn’t take into account was how fundamentally I had changed–or rather, how fundamentally Nicaragua had change me.  I had my moments of culture shock when I came home, but the change goes deeper than that.  I feel unequivocally connected to Nicaragua and it is an integral part of who I am.

Two months into my service, I wrote a poem that spoke of the difficulties of adapting to a new culture.  I feel it’s appropriate to share now because I predicted the state in which I currently find myself: American (ehm…United Statesian) with a pedacito of Nicaragua lodged within.

Aquí estoy, en Nicaragua, Voluntaria del Cuerpo de Paz.
Today I am at ease; tomorrow loneliness will seize
my insides: it will strangle my heart, my body, my mind, my soul
de repente, like an acute illness, subsiding only to appease
my need to feel whole
again, by transforming something trite into something beautiful to
remind me that I can thrive here too.
It’s this dichotomy that causes me to pause,
only for a moment, to realize that this gaping hole
from within, where familiarity se fue, can cease
and can root me to this land if I allow pieces
of Nicaragua to become pieces of me, as if I keep a ray of the Nica sol
stored away adentro as a reminder that aunque vine sola,
I am no longer alone in this new país. Only two
months done. The strangeness now—the bolo that pees
on brick while onlookers yell “¡cochino!”, or the dog, barely able to stand on its paws
for hunger that dodges rocks and kicks from the kids that see
him sniffing for crumbs nearby, or the packed buses confronting potholes
like bulls ramming heads as passengers swop sweat and goods and hold
tightly onto the nearest immobile object, or the stranger asking bluntly, ¿Andas soltera?,
or worse, when alguien me pregunta algo and all I do in response is nod and say
uncertainly—all of this will become commonplace to
me. It will calm my soul like Dunkin Donuts, autumn, and running used to: en caos hay paz.
In chaos, there is peace.
So I’m weaving the bulla, the Spanish, the fresco-in-a-bag, the Nicaragua that I am conociendo, and piecing
it together within, so that its joys, sorrows, colors, and tongues, will make me whole
again. I came to Nicaragua totalmente American, but when I leave Cuerpo de Paz,
I know that nestled within this American soul
will be a Nicaragüense that drinks oatmeal, craves beans, and doesn’t use ,
but vos. But for now, glancing out onto this sea
of unfamiliarity, of Iris’s blood dripping down her post-partum leg when she stood to see
what the nurse wanted; of getting caught in the lluvia without a piece
of rain gear, utterly destroying my charlas; of succumbing a bit too
quickly to a certain hombre, without understanding the whole
picture of how relationships might differ here; me doy cuenta that I will never be the sole
person to experience anything. Me doy cuenta that I should always pause
to gain perspective. Pause to breath. Pause to see
the sol that I have stored adentro. Pause to fit the pieces together.
And finally, pause to affirm that I’m still whole, that I’m still one within me.

I have not found the time to write as much since returning to the States.  Instead, I’ve been finding my way, trying to figure out how to integrate this new aspect of my identity into daily life.  Sometimes it’s difficult, like the time I passed by a group of teenage boys and they said something to me, and I didn’t quite hear them so I scrunched up my nose as we often do in Nicaragua.  They misinterpreted my facial twitch as a sort of snarl and they yelled out “woahhhh!” as they physically backed away.  I pushed my embarrassment aside and mentally noted this newly-discovered power over street hooligans.

Other times it’s easy, like yesterday when I started talking to Ana, my neighbor and new friend/ fresh corn tortilla connection from El Salvador, and it felt like being back in Nicaragua where paseando is a recognized afternoon activity.

Since being back, I’ve been seeking out ways to feel connected to Nicaragua.  In Boston, Kate and I went to a Spanish-language meetup at a bar, in DC I held the Nicaraguan flag and marched with the Peace Corps in the Pride Parade, in Baltimore I chose to live in the neighborhood with the highest population of Latinos, where I can go to the corner store, speak Spanish to the Dominican shop owners, and buy cuajada.

When Esperanza, Nishant’s host mom, came to the States, I put Maní in the car and we drove up to the Jersey Shore to visit her and meet her family there.  I felt so at ease: it was the perfect meshing of worlds.  We sat at the kitchen table for hours, talking and eating. We spent the evening walking along the beach and going from house to house visiting family, eating, and drinking coffee, just like we did in Nicaragua.  Experiencing the Nicaraguan lifestyle within US borders made me realize that leaving Nicaragua doesn’t necessarily mean that Nicaragua has to leave me.

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So here I am, an American with Nicaraguan tendencies, embarking on a new chapter of my life. I’m currently in Baltimore studying public health at Johns Hopkins.

Just as my life is starting a new chapter, so too will my blog. This will be my last post for Nicaraguan Lauren.  You see, part of the reason why I haven’t been writing is because this can no longer be a forum for my Peace Corps story.  While Peace Corps and Nicaragua will always be a part of my story, the blog’s parameters seem too narrow now.  When I come back, my blog will not only have a new name and a complete makeover, but it will become a forum where I can write about personal anecdotes, culture, gender, and public health.  I hope to see you there.

Hasta la proxima.  Thank you for reading.

Lauren Freda Spigel, RPCV (Nicaragua ’11-’13) signing out!

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Sometimes she gets away from me.

When walking Maní in Nicaragua, she’d sometimes get away from me.  She’d get into a neighbor’s yard and run around, play with their dog, bark at their cat, stare at their horses, or chase their chickens.  The whole family would laugh and help me chase and catch her.  I’d introduce myself and they’d tell me a little about themselves.  Maní and I would walk away lightheartedly as I cooed her and pulled her away on the leash.

When walking Maní in the States, she stays on the leash. It’s a long leash, though, and sometimes she gets away from me.  Today my neighbor and I exchanged pleasantries. —

Neighbors talking about the weather. I used to walk around La Dalia and do this with just about everyone I passed.  When I started my service, it took me 15 minutes to walk between my home and the hospital.  By the end, it took a half hour.  And when I walked with Alma, it took us an hour and by the time we got home, we’d be stuffed with dinner and coffee.

— And then Maní got away from me.  She rolled in my neighbor’s dirt by the curb of the road.  His dirt.  He yells, get her away from there. I pull her leash close and apologize.  Go away, he shouts again, closer this time.  I’m working on it, I’m really sorry.  And then Maní and I walked away in silence, hollow, stiff, and mortified.

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Boston Marathon Explosions

Boston Marathon 2013

watching the marathoners run by from our spot in Coolidge Corner

Two bombs detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  The current count is two dead and over one hundred injured, though I expect those numbers to rise as the night progresses. One of those killed was an eight-year-old kid.

When the bombs went off, I was in Beth Israel hospital visiting my Grandma Dot, who’s being hospitalized for a compression fracture in her back.

God–I was watching my Grandma wince in pain as they were fitting her to a back brace while simultaneously watching the video of the bombs exploding over and over on the news.

Before continuing with my account of the event, I should interject that I’m viewing this as a person who has just gotten back from living outside of the United States for two years.  I came home almost three weeks ago after finishing my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua.

Coming home has its challenges. In the span of just a couple weeks, I packed up my life and said goodbye to Nicaragua, to my friends, and to my boyfriend.

You could say I’m in withdrawal; the smallest provocation makes me feel incredibly sad. For instance, yesterday I was driving from DC to Boston and the Calle 13 song “Latinoamerica” came on and I don’t know–something about it–the poignant imagery, perhaps, made me almost smell Nicaragua and next thing I know I’m crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge in tears, inconsolable, even if I were with someone that could have consoled me.

I say all of this because this afternoon I went to go see the Boston Marathon near where my sister lives by Coolidge Corner in Brookline, about two miles from the finish line. I kept thinking about how incredibly impressive these runners are, and how this marathon was exhibiting such human triumph.  I could hardly stand being there for fear of crying in front of others, so I left and I went to go visit my grandma in the hospital in Boston.

When I found out what had happened, I just kept thinking about all those runners that I had seen; how I had been admiring them just a short time earlier, and how I didn’t know if some of them were now injured, or without limbs, or if their families waiting for them at the finish line were okay, and how awful this day had become.

I wanted to go back to Nicaragua so badly.  I started crying. This is not a good welcome home to the United States. The reality of transitioning to life in the States has enough challenges without confronting terrorism and violence in my own city.

How horrible. How unforgivable. How feo.

I hope that no more people die and that those who are injured recover.  I hope that this age of terrorism and nonsensical violence that we’re in ends now. And lastly, I hope that the Boston Marathon will continue to be a symbol of competition and athleticism rather than of violence and sorrow and terrorism.

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Description of Service

Every Peace Corps Volunteer must write a Description of Service (DOS) before finishing up his or her service.  Since it’s pretty much a summary of all the important work I did as a PCV, I thought I’d share it all with you.  Enjoy!

DESCRIPTION OF VOLUNTEER SERVICE
LAUREN FREDA SPIGEL

DESCRIPTION OF TRAINING

Lauren Spigel began Peace Corps Nicaragua’s community-based training program in the town of La Paz, Carazo on January 17, 2011. The intensive 11-week program was decentralized and field-based.  This training model was designed to help trainees adapt to actual field situations, while living with Nicaraguan families.  The training program included formal sessions on Nicaraguan culture, customs and orienting to health education techniques and familiarity with governmental and non-governmental programs in Nicaragua.  It consisted of approximately 230 hours of Spanish language studies, 75 hours in technical aspects of community health   promotion, and 30 hours in cross cultural studies.  An additional 60 hours of non-formal self-directed activities were carried out in technical and cross-cultural themes at the community level.

After successful completion of training, Lauren Spigel was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua on April 1, 2011.

PRIMARY WORK ASSIGNMENT

Lauren Spigel served as a maternal and child health volunteer assigned to the local Ministry of Health (MINSA) in La Dalia, Matagalpa, which is located in the mountainous northern region of Nicaragua. In La Dalia, a high teen pregnancy rate is one of the municipality’s greatest challenges, as one in three adolescent girls will become pregnant by the age of nineteen.  In addition, intimate partner violence, while underreported, is also a grave issue.  Furthermore, due to long and heavy rainy seasons, La Dalia confronts several seasonal illnesses each year, such as high rates of dengue fever, as well as childhood pneumonia and diarrhea.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Maternal Child Health Promotion Project in La Dalia, Lauren’s primary role was to work with MINSA to build the capacity of community members and community health volunteers in maternal and child health-related themes, such as nutrition, hygiene, breastfeeding, risk factors during pregnancy, etc.  She also focused her educational activities on sexual and reproductive health-related themes, including HIVaids, gender, violence, and preventing teen pregnancy. Her target populations were primarily community health workers, women, young children, and youth.  Her area of work not only concentrated in the town’s limits but also frequently expanded to the 186 surrounding communities under the direction of the ministry of health and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

During her two-year assignment, Lauren led the following activities in Spanish:

  • Lauren collaborated with PCV colleagues and several local and international organizations to create ChatSalud, a nation-wide mobile health initiative that provided anonymous text-based sexual and reproductive health education to rural Nicaraguans. ChatSalud covered five main themes: HIVaids, STIs, safer sex, reproductive health, and domestic violence.
  • Lauren held a weekly radio show on Stereo Dalia 94.1 that reached over 60,000 people and covered themes such as women’s health, domestic violence, self-esteem, communication skills, sexual health and US and Nicaraguan culture for one and a half years. The show was called, Hablando un Mismo Idioma (Speaking the Same Language).
  • In November 2012, Lauren worked side-by-side a local NGO, Acción Médica Cristiana, to carry out a month-long educational campaign on cervical cancer. During the campaign, Lauren empowered over one hundred women from seven rural communities to take charge of their health by getting pap smears.
  • In February and March 2013, Lauren continued her work on cervical cancer with Acción Médica Cristiana by organizing and implementing two full-day workshops, in which she trained 24 community leaders to facilitate sessions on cervical cancer, thereby ensuring the sustainability of her work.  The workshop included lectures on non-formal education, cervical cancer, and a practical experience in which each participant led an educational session on cervical cancer to either patients in the hospital or to women in the maternity home. Afterwards, each participant picked a date in which they would give the educational session in their own community.
  • Lauren worked closely with a community health volunteer from a rural community to form a women’s group that met regularly for over a year.  They worked together to lead a series of educational sessions on themes ranging from breastfeeding and nutrition to self-esteem and domestic violence to a group of twenty women.
  • Lauren worked directly with MINSA to build the capacity of the 186 local community health volunteers by training them in maternal and child health best practices through monthly meetings. She also supported MINSA by delivering health education to rural communities through frequent community visits.
  • As part of a three-day conference in October 2012, Lauren designed and led an educational session on the relationship between gender, behavior, and HIV in Nicaragua for organizations that coordinate with migrant workers.

SECONDARY PROJECT ACTIVITIES

  • From September 2011 through August 2012, Lauren led a coloring group for primary school children in the La Dalia neighborhood, San Martin.  The coloring group promoted creativity, literacy, and improved hygienic practices amongst participating children.
  • From July 2011 to March 2013, Lauren was a lead writer, editor and contributor to the tri-annual Peace Corps Volunteer Nicaragua magazine, Va Pue.

COMPLETION OF SERVICE

Lauren Spigel completed her Peace Corps service on March 22, 2013. Upon completing her service, Lauren achieved Spanish language proficiency of Advanced-Mid, according to the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)/ (ETS).

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Exit Interview

Lauren SpigelI fly out tomorrow. The last couple weeks have been really tough: first I said goodbye to La Dalia, then to my fellow Nica 55ers, then to my host family in La Paz, and tomorrow, I will say goodbye to Nicaragua herself.  Goodbyes are heavy and I haven’t had time to digest it all yet.  In the meantime, take a look at my exit interview that will appear in the our very own Peace Corps Volunteer magazine, Va Pue. If you don’t speak Spanglish, see the Spanglish Dictionary (for the Idioma’d-Challenged) below to help translate some of my responses.

Name: Lauren “Lorenita” Spigel
Site: La Dalia, Matagalpa
Favorite Nica food or drink: Frijolitos, maduro, cuajada, crema, y huevos revueltos, all on one plate; leche con banano in a bag.
Favorite Nica dicho: Que tuani no ser machista.
Use your favorite Spanglish word in a sentence: I need to conseguir some letters of recommendation.
Part of your body that will never be the same: My skin. I look so old now!
Most creative piropo: During the time I was practicing the imperfect subjunctive tense, I was walking my dog one day when someone yelled out, “Si pudiera ser tu perrito lo haría”—disturbing, but grammatically correct.
When were you at your most Nica? Staring at white people; chinearing babies on buses; saying “goodbye” as I passed by people in the States.
Favorite thing about your site: My neighbors; the cool climate (except when it involves showering in December); the mountains; the views of said mountains; outings to communities; my women’s group; open doors; swinging on my hammock; neighborhood pulperías; hanging with Doña Damaris at her quiosco; and of course, the infamous gas station.
What did you miss most from home during your service? Burgers, beer and bagels; green grass; and constant access to water.
What will you miss most from Nicaragua? Living physically close to other people and the sense of community that comes from it; saying “adioooooooos;” shopping on buses; long scenic trips; and my friends and neighbors who have supported me throughout my time here.
What were you most proud of during your service? Gaining confianza with community members through my radio show, Hablando un Mismo Idioma, where I discussed gender violence and sexual health; my women’s group; how big ChatSalud is getting; and the taller I held with Acción Médica Cristiana that trained community leaders to facilitate charlas on cervical cancer.
What’s your legacy?  Complete this sentence: I’m the gringa who talked to her dog.
Best and/or worst memory: Best: I got back to site at 8:30 p.m. from Managua and had just found out that I had to go back to Managua the next morning at 4:00 a.m. I was bringing Maní (my dog) back to the States, and that was when the bus driver said I should bring her. This was not a lot of time to close my house up for three weeks.  My neighbor Miriam came over and said that all I had to worry about was packing my suitcase and sleeping and she’d do the rest for me, which included cleaning everything and bringing the fridge and cocina over to her house.  I was so thankful.  Worst: My mid-service crisis, which once resulted in me sobbing while stuck between two large men on a 4-hour bus journey home from Managua.  Also, having dengue was the worst.
Craziest bus story: A bolo once put the whole front of his body against my entire backside—like, we’re talking bien pegado. When I asked him to give me some more space, he accused me of being fachenta. After a long tirade, the bolo and his bolo friend transitioned into a loud drunken debate on the merits of feminism. It was an unexpected turn of events.
Regrets: None.
Would you do it all over again? Yes.
Where will we find you in 10 years? Maní and I will be growing old together.
Parting words/ advice to remaining volunteers: Rid yourself of Peace Corps guilt—sometimes it’s okay to take some time to burrow away and watch a movie, take a weekend out of site or work outside of your assigned counterpart agency. At the same time, try to put yourself out there and meet as many people and organizations as possible. Work opportunities are lurking everywhere.  Wear sunscreen every day so you don’t look like a viejit@ at the end of your service.

SPANGLISH DICTIONARY
(for the idioma’d-challenged) 

  • Frijolitos: fried beans
  • Maduro, cuajada, crema, y huevos revueltos: ripe/fried/sweet plantain, fresh cheese, cream, and scrambled eggs.  
  • Leche con banano: Milk and banana smoothie
  • Nica dicho: Nicaraguan saying
  • Que tuani no ser machista: It’s cool not to be machista (i.e.) it’s cool to respect women.
  • Conseguir: to get something
  • Si pudiera ser tu perrito lo haría”: If I could be your dog, I would.
  • chinearing: cradling
  • Pulperías: mini convenience stores that are generally out of people’s homes
  • Quiosco: kiosk
  • Confianza: Trust
  • Hablando un Mismo Idioma: Speaking the Same Language
  • Charlas: Information educational sessions/ mini lectures
  • Taller: workshop
  • Gringa: A person from the United States
  • Cocina: My little stove top
  • Bolo: a drunk man
  • Bien pegado: very close; literally “very glued.”
  • Fachenta: snobby
  • Viejit@: Old person. People use “@” to include both genders (an “o” at the end would indicate a male, an “a” at the end would indicate a female, and “@” is all-inclusive).
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Bienvenidos a La Tienda Lorena

When I first moved out of my host family’s home and into my own house, my neighbors in Barrio San Martin became a second family to me.  They gave me food, we passed the time talking on each other’s porches, I let them borrow my water when they had none, and they let me borrow their water when I had none.  Since moving to a different barrio, I haven’t been able to spend as much time with my old neighbors as I used to, but I still go back to visit de vez en cuando.

Here’s a picture of me with Maria and her family.  Maria makes a living by making tortillas, so every day, I’d wake up to the sounds of taptap, taptap, taptap, taptap — her hands pounding the masa (dough).  And whenever I’d buy a tortilla or two, she’d always sneak in an extra for me.  From November to January, she and her daughter Angelica take a break from making tortillas to pick coffee, spending every day out at the farm from 4am to 4pm.  Without fail, Maria always gives me a big plate of food and a cup of coffee whenever I visit, even though she doesn’t have much. She also did my laundry by hand for almost an entire year–the woman is a saint.

From right to left: Angelica (her daughter), me (the giant one), Maria, and her son Orman.

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Here’s Orman.  He doesn’t talk much, probably because he’s too busy running around the house and giggling.  Usually we just play that game where he hides behind a wall and peeps his head up, and then laughs and hides each time he realizes I’m still looking at him.  It’s quite fun.

IMG_1992Clara is really outgoing and was one of the first people to welcome me to the neighborhood.  She usually passes the day taking care of her three children and selling Avon products. In fact, Clara and Maria are both Avon saleswomen, so it would get awkward sometimes when they were both competing for my business.  I ended up buying a comforter and perfume from Clara, and while I only ever bought Avon lip gloss from Maria, I also solicited her help for washing my clothes, which in my mind, evened it out.

Me, Clara, and her daughter Ashley:

IMG_1991I’ve become probably the closest with Angelica and her family, who live across the street from my old house.  Angelica is an all-star.  I first met her when I was moving into my house and she came over with her English homework and asked for my help.  I was just six months into my service at this point but was already cynical.  I thought for sure she just wanted me to do her English homework for her, just like most of the other kids.  But I was wrong.  She had already done her English homework, and just wanted me to double check that everything was correct.  And it was!  She also really grew on me when she killed all the tarantulas in my house.  We’ve since become great friends, and this year I nominated her to participate in a Peace Corps camp for girls called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).  She went, and unsurprisingly, she was one of everyone’s favorite campers!

Left to right: Angelica, her baby sister, and me

IMG_1716Angelica’s parents are wonderful as well.  Her father Ronald helped me build my shower when I first moved in. Her mother Marbelly works for Acción Médica Cristiana, which is the NGO I worked with on the cervical cancer campaign.  It’s also about a block away from my current house, so I chat with her nearly everyday.

Here is a photo of Marbelly working in Acción Médica Cristiana’s “Venta Social de Medicamentos,” which is a fully-stocked pharmacy that sells medicine at reduced prices:

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If you all have been following my blog for a while, you must remember how much I loved hanging out with all the kids in my old neighborhood.  For a while I had a coloring group with all of them, in which they’d all sit around my table and color until they either got bored or I kicked them out.  It started off really informal, but as time went on, I organized the coloring group around other activities.  For instance, the time Mongo came to visit, they learned about dengue and malaria prevention and then colored little handouts on it.  Another time, I brought a puzzle, and they first had to put it together, and then we all went around making up a story about it.  Finally after that was done, they drew pictures from the story.  It was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Here I am, with all the children. I can’t get over how Peace Corps this picture is.

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By now you must all be wondering why this blog entry is entitled, “Bienvenidos a la Tienda Lorena,” which roughly translates to, “Welcome to Lauren’s Store.” Somehow over the course of two years, I have accumulated more clothes than I can bring home with me. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I sorted through it, packed most of it into a suitcase, brought the suitcase to my old neighborhood, and set up a make-shift store at Angelica’s house. I then went around telling all of my friends in the neighborhood that I was giving my clothes away; they just had to come choose what they wanted. The clothes were gone in five minutes.

La Tienda Lorena:

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From the inside:

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Some of my neighbors after shopping:

IMG_2020It was a fun way to get rid of excess clothes, say goodbye and leave a little recuerdo for everyone.  I’m going back to visit one last time in a couple days to give them all yet another recuerdo: a photo of Maní and I, which I know they will all just cherish forever … mostly because of Maní.

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Des-pe-di-da: (n) a goodbye party

A despedida is a goodbye party. To despedir someone is to say goodbye. This is what I’ve been doing for the last month.  The next few posts will document all the goodbyes I’ve been having, and —por fin (finally!)– you’ll get to meet some of the characters that have colored my life over these two years.  Yes–as promised, I have been taking photos all around town like a crazy person. Let’s get started:

The first group of people I had to say goodbye to was Nishant’s host family.  Although I only made it up there a half dozen times or so throughout my service, they’ve made me feel completely part of their family.  They even welcomed MY family into their home as well–Nadine and Becca had the privilege of meeting them this past October during a visit to Nicaragua.

This is Esperanza, Nishant’s host mom:

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She is one of the strongest, most caring and genuine women I have known.  She treats Nishant as a son, and Nishant treats her as a mother.  It’s really special to see.  Nishant was incredibly lucky to have found Esperanza and her family, and I feel fortunate that as a result, I’ve been able to get to know them as well, if only for the few times I was able to make the 9 hour journey to Quilalí.

Nishant is in love with Nicolita, Esperanza’s granddaughter and Tomasa’s daughter:

IMG_1870She is so cute and happy all the time.

IMG_1872I mean, just look at her!  What’s not to love?  Here’re a couple pictures of Nicolita and Emily playing in the house:
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I met Nicolita the first time I went to Quilalí, back in October 2011 when she was just a tiny little peanut.  She’s grown so much since then!

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Here she is with her momma, Tomasa:

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I got to go out with them to their family farm a couple times, and both experiences are forever glued to my memory.  This is one of my favorite pictures from there–all the kids on the horses:

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The food that Esperanza makes already makes me nostalgic:

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And as a final despedida, Esperanza made me tacos!  Generally Nicaraguan tacos are made by wrapping old tortillas around meat and frying it.  Esperanza, on the other hand, makes everything from scratch!  They were the best tacos I ever had.  First, she cooks the chicken in a big pot.  Then she makes fresh tortilla dough using the chicken stock from the chicken.  She pats out the dough with her palm and places the chicken inside:

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She then deep fries them, and voilà!

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They were so good that even though that was my despedida dinner, I came back a second time a couple weeks later 🙂

It was sad saying goodbye.  It really was.

But I have this unshakable feeling that this isn’t goodbye forever.  In fact, I can’t help but think that I’ll be back in Nicaragua and in Quilalí in the near future, si díos quiere.

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My Work Here is Done

March is here: my 27th and final month as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I have one more week in site, and nineteen short days left in Nicaragua.  I’m not crying because I’m in denial.  So it goes.

During the month of November, I teamed up with a local NGO, Acción Médica Cristiana, to lead an educational campaign about cervical cancer in seven rural communities.

Part of the cervical cancer charla, of course, is a demonstration of how to use a condom. If your partner tells you his penis is TOO LARGE for that TINY condom, ask him for his arm and unroll it until it reaches his elbow.  He'll be speechless.

Part of the cervical cancer charla, of course, was a demonstration of how to use a condom. If your partner tells you his penis is TOO LARGE for that TINY condom, ask him for his arm and unroll the condom until it reaches his elbow. He’ll be speechless.

Cervical cancer is both PREVENTABLE and TREATABLE, yet many women don’t get their pap smears done for several reasons.  For instance, sometimes women are too embarrassed, especially if the doctor is a male. Sometimes their husbands tell them they can’t go: (“no one can see your vagina but me!”). In addition, sometimes the ministry of health misplaces these women’s pap results, which understandably brews a certain degree of mistrust, and women are (justifiably) hesitant to give it another go.

Side note: After months of telling women that they should still get their paps done if the doctor is male (“they’re professionals!,” I tell them. “They’ve seen thousands of vaginas! Yours is not unique!”) I had to eat my words. For my final close of service medical review, Peace Corps assigned me to a male doctor. I was nervous.  But as he was examining me, I took a deep breath and made small talk: “You went to the University of Maryland?!  I went to the University of Maryland!”  “I talk to women about paps ALL THE TIME!”  It really wasn’t bad.

Okay, back to the story:

Due to all of these factors and more, more than 350 women die EACH YEAR from cervical cancer in Nicaragua.

After giving the charla in all of Acción Médica’s communities, we came up with an idea: I would train leaders from the communities how to GIVE this charla.  That way, it wouldn’t matter that I leave this month; they’ll always be able to teach women about cervical cancer.

Thus, the Cervical Cancer Facilitator Training Workshop was born.  On Wednesday, February 6, eleven women and one man arrived at my little casita in La Dalia. Don Jorge brought a truck full of tables, chairs, coffee, snacks, and other supplies.  Paola from HLS 58 came in to help me lead the workshop.

The workshop had three components:

1) A charla on how to facilitate a non-formal educational session.  This included defining a “facilitator” versus a “teacher;” thinking about different ways to present information (brainstorm, role-playing, case studies, demonstrations, games…); and tips on planning your session (is it too hot? too cold? how are the seats arranged? are all my materials prepped?….)

2) A modified charla on cervical cancer.  It was modified because after each component, the group had to tell Paola and I what technique we were using to present the information.

3) A practical experience.  This was the BEST and MOST-EFFECTIVE part of the workshop.  After participating in both charlas, we broke everyone into two groups.  Each group was tasked with preparing and giving a charla on cervical cancer.  One group gave it to patients in the waiting room of the hospital and the other group gave it to the pregnant women in the casa materna (maternity home).

After the practical experiences, we ate lunch, decompressed, discussed the days’ events, and lastly, we pulled out a calendar and everyone told me when they would give the charla in their own communities.  Acción Médica promised to help each leader give the charla, and I’ve already heard success stories of these guys giving charlas to groups of 20+ people at a time.

This workshop was absolutely the highlight of my work in La Dalia. It challenged me to harness all the skills I’ve learned in the Peace Corps and to make use of my community integration to put together a workshop that would EMPOWER people to both lead and teach their communities.  I was so proud.

And I think Acción Médica was too, because they asked me to lead a second one in another community, which I did this past Wednesday with the help of Robyn, PCVL HE 52.

And with that, my work here is done.  Over the next seven days, my only job is to wrap up my life here and to say goodbye to La Dalia and all the people that have made my service so special over the last two years.

Paola leading an introductory game before starting the session.

Paola leading an introductory game before starting the session.

me, leading the cervical cancer charla.

me, leading the cervical cancer charla.

learning!
learning!

The rules of "silla pica," roughly translated to "hot seat," are that when you hear "silla pica!" you have to stand up. The last to stand gets punished.  These ladies all had to dance in front of the group.

The rules of “silla pica,” roughly translated to “hot seat,” are that when you hear “silla pica!” you have to stand up. The last to stand gets punished. These ladies all had to dance in front of the group.

learning how to use a condom correctly
learning how to use a condom correctly

prepping their charla for the practical!

prepping their charla for the practical!Even though the hospital was about a block away, and the casa materna was just a short walk up a hill, we all piled into the truck and Don Jorge  dropped us off at our respective practicum locations.Even though the hospital was about a block away, and the casa materna was just a short walk up a hill, we all piled into the truck and Don Jorge dropped us off at our respective practicum locations.

charla at the hospital

charla at the hospital

hospital patients listening to the charla

hospital patients listening to the charla

And finally, the second group giving the charla at the casa materna :)

And finally, the second group giving the charla at the casa materna 🙂

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Payacuca: a Love Letter

The “Payacuca” bus is my favorite bus in town.  According to town lore (read: my friends William and Fabiola) the bus was named Payacuca because  the owner used to have a route between a community called Payacuca and Matagalpa.  For some reason, when he changed routes and moved to La Dalia, the name stuck.  Names stick here.  Like when you need to find the movie theater and the address is: “from where the gas station used to be [but hasn’t been for 20 years], go a block south and a half block east.”

In any event, here’s the Payacuca:

Payacoco in all her glory. Photo credit: Sam Burke, sitemate extraordinaire.

Payacuca in all her glory. Photo credit: Sam Burke, sitemate extraordinaire.

I want to share with you all a list of the reasons why I love this bus more than all other buses.  Here it goes:

1. It leaves from my neighborhood. This means that when I need to go to Matagalpa, I can just stroll down this beautiful street and be the first one on the bus before it even goes to the bus stop. As I would otherwise need to walk up a giant hill to reach the bus stop, this really is helpful.

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It’s that hardly-visible spec of light at the end of the street.

2. The whole bus crew is a family.  They work together all day and share a house together.  The owner of the bus loves ranchera music, as evidenced by the fact that the bus’s antiquated speakers blast ranchera from the moment I board to the moment I leave; he shakes everyone’s  hands, makes small talk and just emits that immeasurable energy that tells the world that he’s happy and loves what he does.  Oh–and he wears a cowboy hat while driving the bus. One of the best parts about Payacuca is that a woman works on the bus as well, which I have never seen anywhere else before in Nicaragua.  Usually it’s just men and boys.  But she holds her own, collecting everyone’s fare day in and day out.

3. Payacuca is dog-friendly. Not only did they allow me to travel with Maní on the bus 100% of the time, but the owner often brings his own dog on the bus from his house to the bus stop, so the dog can play at the market all day.  I was surprised to find that one time when he stopped the bus and opened the door, it was a dog that walked in rather than a person.  He was giving the dog a lift!

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Mani always rode chineada (on my lap).  This wasn’t actually taken on Payacuca, but you get the idea.

4. When you need to return to La Dalia from Matagalpa, Payacuca allows you to avoid Guanuca, the main bus terminal, altogether. Until about 12:30 pm, the bus sits parked in a calm spot on the side of the road in front of the Maxi Palí, a supermarket outside of Matagalpa.  For those in the know, they’ll let you board the bus there and avoid the nightmare that is Guanuca.  Instead of standing in the hot sun with your backpack strapped to your back and your arms full of your purchases, fighting for positioning, running up to the bus as it parks, grabbing on to the handles by the door, boxing out the crowd around you, and sprinting to your seat before the group of men that is coming in through the back doors gets there first, you get to climb up the stairs calmly, say “buenas” to everyone on the bus, choose your seat, put your bags away, and watch the madness unfold in front of you, while you watch, relaxed, in your seat.  This truly is a gift.

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Guanuca: Worst. Place. In. Nicaragua.

5. And finally, the reason I’m writing this blog entry is because of what happened yesterday. Yesterday I had to go through Matagalpa to pick Angelica up and bring her back to La Dalia.  She had just come back from a weekend participating in Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a leadership camp for girls led by a group of Peace Corps Volunteers.  We decided to take the Payacuca bus in order to avoid Guanuca, so we took a cab to where it was parked, got on, put our stuff away, and sat down.  At 12:30 when the bus started moving out, the woman who works on the bus stood up and made an announcement: You’re all going to need to duck and cover because we’re technically not allowed to let you all board the bus early, and the people that enforce that rule are watching.  So until we’re parked in Guanuca, you all need to hide. Immediately everyone springs into action.  Angelica goes to the seat across from me and lies down.  I duck too.  There are about 10 of us on the bus at this point and everyone–including some older adults–is hiding their heads from view and laughing hysterically. We stayed that way until we were safely parked in Guanuca and other passengers began boarding.  Here’s a picture of Angelica (and the man on her right) hiding:

IMG_1829So, in sum, Payacuca, there are a number of reasons why I love you. You’re there for me when I wake up in the morning and don’t want to get sweaty from hiking up the hill to the bus stop.  You’re there for me in the afternoon when I need to go back to La Dalia and don’t feel like fighting the whole town for a seat.  And even though most buses treated Maní and I like untouchables, you always let me travel with her. Even when I didn’t, you always asked me how she was doing. Payacuca, you have been an integral part of my life during my Peace Corps service.  Thank you for all that you do.

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Barbara’s Guest Blog: Occupational Therapy in Nicaragua

The primary reason for my trip was the culmination of an international service-learning course I had gotten into at school this past August. Each year, a professor in our Occupational Therapy department takes four students to Managua for a week to work at Tesoros de Dios, a wonderful school for kids with disabilities who otherwise would not have the opportunity to go to school. While staying in Managua, we were hosted by the Manna Project International, a volunteer-based organization that enlists the help of young adult volunteers who spend 13 months living and working with under-served populations in Nicaragua (they also work in Ecuador and Guatemala).

Before I joined up with my classmates and got to work at Tesoros de Dios, I met up with Lauren and her sister Nadine for some fun! We spent the better part of our first two days in Las Peñitas, Leon, a cool little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. For me, the adventure began when we got to the bus station, la UCA.  It felt crazy and hectic to me, with people everywhere trying to get you to take their cabs or their bus or their minibus. It also didn’t help that not only were we three gringas, but we were three gringas with fairly large suitcases, so I felt like we stood out just a bit.  But la UCA was also decidedly not the scary place I had been reading about on the internet. People were friendly, and there were women and kids everywhere, and I didn’t feel like my pasty New England skin and blonde hair was attracting as much attention as people had been telling me it would. People were squeezing into buses to get to work, or to visit family, or to go to the beach, just like we were. And it was on this morning that I learned my first Nica lesson: there is no such thing as a bus that is too full.

Our weekend in Las Peñitas was awesome. We had delicious fresh fish fillets for lunch at the hostel, Barca de Oro (highly recommended), went horseback riding on the beach at sunset (fun and terrifying at the same time), and went on a fun eco-tour through coastal waterways (baby turtles!). After Las Peñitas, we headed back to Managua for a night, and then on the last of my three days with Lauren, we went to La Paz.

A Leon riding on beach 2

Our day in La Paz was really special. Lauren took me to meet her host family from her time as a Peace Corps trainee. Doña Petrona, her host mom, and her family were so kind and warm, it was easy to see how Lauren had stayed so close with them even two years later.  I learned that Petrona had pulled herself and her family out of poverty when she was a young single mom, and that she told other young women her story in hopes that she could inspire them to do the same. Petrona’s family and extended family were equally as gracious as she was, and Lauren took me on a tour of the little town where she spent her first three months in country. We went to Petrona’s son’s house and sat and visited with his family and neighbors who were passing through. We followed a festive church parade that was walking around the town in honor of a Catholic holiday that I wasn’t familiar with. I learned about bombas, which are very loud firecrackers, without any of the pretty lights. Our day in La Paz was one of my favorite parts of my trip. It was a new experience for me to spend time in another country, very different from my own, and just be in the community. I was doing what the locals did, eating what the locals ate, just spending a Sunday afternoon socializing, visiting, talking–just going with the flow of the day.

Lauren's host family

Lauren’s host family (from left to right): Petrona, William, Marisol, Walter, Ramon

Even though my time in La Paz was brief, I was sad to go. Petrona’s sons had been very adamant about me not wasting any opportunity to learn Spanish, and I was really touched by both their pride in their language and their country, and their effort to share their language with me. But alas, it was already Sunday night, and my classmates and professor from Worcester were about to arrive.

B Tesoros 4For the next five days, my school group and I spent our days at Tesoros de DiosTesoros de Dios is a ministry in Managua that serves over 80 children with disabilities and their families. The school and clinic are staffed with physical therapists and special educators who are as good as they come. These women get a good salary and a compassionate work environment in return for their unconditional affection for the kids they work with. We were there to assist with the therapy and to learn about the work they do with the kids. Most of the kids had cerebral palsy, and they ranged in age from two to around 15 years old. Our time at Tesoros was a very unique experience. It was interesting to learn about how Nicaraguan culture views disability (not too positively) and to see how the mothers managed the care of their children on a day-to-day basis, without many of the services that we take for granted here in the United States. You’ve got to give huge credit to these women. They do such an outstanding job of taking great care of their kids, in spite of minimal resources and a lack of social support from the greater community.

B tesoros 38

It was a really neat experience to work with the women at Tesoros.
I arrived on day one expecting them to be looking to us for answers, and I could not have been more wrong. These women were well educated and competent in their skills, and they were kind to let us spend our week learning from and working with them. At the end of the week they presented each of us with a handmade card, signed by all of them, which I’ll keep for a very long time.

One of the more profound experiences of my trip was the morning we spent at La Chureca. La Chureca is the largest municipal dump in Central America, and it is home to over 150 families who live along the outskirts of the landfills. Residents of La Chureca make a living picking through the trash (residential, industrial and medical wastes) that is brought in from all over Managua. The Manna Project volunteers help to run a health clinic in La Chureca, and they also recently started a women’s jewelry cooperative, where women can use new and recycled materials to make jewelry, and the profits from the sales help to pay each woman an hourly wage, so they don’t have to pick through trash to earn money for themselves and their family. The Manna project also sponsors a milk program for 50 at-risk children under the age of five who live in La Chureca. Once a month, the mothers bring their children in to get weighed (to ensure that they are growing normally), and get powdered milk, rice and beans for their kids.

Our trip came to an end with a weekend in Granada (with a quick stop at the Masaya Market on the way–best smoothies ever!) and at the Laguna de Apoyo. Granada was a really fun city, and the Laguna de Apoyo was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. We spent the day at Abuela’s, a small hotel on the edge of the lake. They had seating and lounging areas along the water where people can lie out on towels and get some sun, and docks to jump off, and of course, the lake to swim in.

Smoothie place in Masaya

Smoothie place in Masaya

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

I feel so lucky to have been able to do so many cool things in Nicaragua. The people I stayed with and the experiences we shared really made me feel like I got to experience a slice of life of the local people, and that is what made this trip so special. Nicaraguans are warm, and proud of their country, and happy to share it with outsiders. I can’t wait to go back.

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Nica Moments

Hanging out with my neighbors  is another "Nica moment" that I usually don't get to capture.

Hanging out with my neighbors is another “Nica moment” I usually don’t get to capture.

Every day I have “Nica moments:” picking out produce from the vegetable market; waiting for pupusas (like a flat knish) to get all hot, melted and crispy on the grill; buses breaking down; cows stopping traffic; kids asking me “Cuando vamos a jugar?;” getting cat-called and then looking at the woman next to me and rolling our eyes together; vendors with beautiful frilly aprons and buckets on their head yelling “güirilas con cuajadaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” so that “cuajada” lasts few seconds longer than it logically should; trading gifts of food and coffee with my neighbors; waiting for meetings to start; watching the sun rise and set over the mountains; coffee pickers carrying baskets of freshly-picked coffee cherries; boys with a bundle of firewood on their shoulders; coffee sprawled out, drying on the street; the smell of burning trash and fire stoves; women washing laundry; waking up to the rhythmic thudding of tortillas being made; and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, most of the time I either don’t have my camera on me or I’m too embarrassed to take it out.  Yet as the reality of my departure is starting to take hold, I’ve been wanting to capture some of these moments to remember my life here.

A couple nights ago I was very fortunate and was able to capture a  “Nica moment” with pictures.

Here’s what happened: we were in the mayor’s truck traveling from Ocotal to Quilalí when we came to a big cargo truck that was stuck in the middle of the road. About 30 guys who had been in the truck were now lined on the side of the road, watching (and heckling) as we attempted to plow throw the mud. We got stuck. They egged us on.  We tried again.  The truck nearly tipped over. We backed up and tried yet again, mud spewing out from under the wheels, and again the truck nearly flipped on its side. So we got out and tried to walk down the road, away from the truck.  I nearly fell because the road was so muddy and my shoes had so little traction, so the mayor grabbed onto my elbow and walked with me up the road.

Nishant was able to walk a little better than I, so he went down and took pictures, as we watched all the guys get behind the truck and push it as it hydroplaned over and over again, until finally, it broke free.

Here is Nishant, walking all by himself (I took this picture whilst being absolutely unable to move):

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The pickup truck trying to get free!

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The guys from the cargo truck helping us get out of the mud:

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All the mud:

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At long last, we made it out! Everyone cheered and we piled back into the truck, slightly muddier and in a fit of giggles, and we continued on our way to Quilalí:

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A truck getting stuck in the mud is not a unique experience; it’s happened before and it will happen again. Yet I rarely get to share moments like this–moments that are just so typical of my life here.

My last day of Peace Corps is March 22. If you need to find me before then, just ask around town for the crazy white girl that’s been taking pictures of everyone at inappropriate moments. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

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ChatSalud @ Banco Mundial Hackathon 26-27 enero

Nishant, one of the founders of project ChatSalud, is speaking about our project to the programmers to see how we can arrive at a technical solution to eliminate domestic violence.

Check out the link about the event: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/2013/01/22/domestic-violence-hackathon-smartphone-lifesaver

Nishant, uno de los fundadores del proyecto ChatSalud, esta hablando sobre nuestro proyecto frente de todos los programadores a ver como podemos llegar a una solución técnica a eliminar la violencia domestica. #vdhackathon

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