Saturday, December 15, 2007

I want to be safe at home

I was supposed to spend the day making cookies with my host family. Instead, I found myself frozen in the back of pickup truck racing backwards down a mountain. As the truck narrowly missed a tree and the steep cliff approached, I should have been trying to plan some sort of escape. All I could think of, however, was how good a no-bake cookie would taste.

My friend, Oliver, had called me in the morning and invited me to tag along to a rural community where an NGO he works for had built a small school. They had called him in the morning and wanted some pictures of the school with the smiling students in front of it. It seemed like an easy mission, and although I wanted to go I initially declined since, as I mentioned, I had already planned on making cookies for the day. Then, after a little further thought I decided I could make cookies any day, but I would never again get the opportunity to travel to this small, rural community. With the “you only live once” mentality I cancelled my engagements and said “vámonos!”

Oliver picked me up in a red, early 1990s Toyota pickup that he had hired at the bus station. Besides Oliver there was the driver, a mumbling older man that I didn’t understand, and two “helpers” along for the ride. I climbed into the back of the pickup truck with Oliver and one of the helpers, a guy about our age who introduced himself as Victor Victor, and we set out.

The first leg of our journey went well and as I enjoyed the view of the mountains I was pleased with my decision to go. Even better I had decided to let Oliver sit closer to Victor Victor who had started to badger him with questions about digital cameras, the Backstreet Boys, and other gringos he knew. I pretended I didn’t know Spanish and just listened in as Oliver awkwardly explained, “No, Victor Victor, I will not buy you a digital camera, but yes, I do like the Backstreet Boys.”

We easily made it to Telpaneca, a small town about an hour north east from my town, and then turned off the highway onto a small, mountain road towards our final destination. As we got higher up the mountain, the weather turned cold, rainy, and windy, and I soon realized that this community was a lot further away than I had originally thought. Two and a half hours into the trip, we came to an old, one lane bridge with a broken down truck in the middle, blocking the way. With no possible way of getting past the truck, we had to decide to walk the rest of the way or turn around defeated. Cold and wet, I tried to convince Oliver that another hour walking to the community wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t hearing any of it and decided to continue on in the rain. After a long, muddy hike up the mountain we made it to the community, about three and a half hours after we had left my town.

A couple of community members rounded up the students while Oliver and I enjoyed lunch at a teacher’s house. The rain let up, the students showed up, we took some good pictures, and things looked like they might turn out after all. Though it started to rain again on our way back to the truck, we made it back a little before schedule and thought the worst was behind us. Then I remembered that we still had a two and a half hour trip through the rain on a small, muddy mountain road in an old pickup with bald tires, no wipers and a mumbling old man driver. A little nervous, I got back into the back of the truck and we set out in the rain.

When the truck picked up any type of speed, it was difficult to see where we were headed with the rain pelting us harder and harder. I just knew that driving in this weather on this road was not a good idea. Tensely gripping the side of the truck, I watched through the rain as the truck dodged potholes, rivers, and cliffs. It was freezing cold, we were 30 kilometers from the nearest town, and I was sure we weren’t going to make it. Luckily, when we had to stop to wipe the windshield off, the guys in the cabin threw us a large plastic tarp that we could throw over us to shield the rain. Oliver, Victor Victor, and I huddled together, threw the tarp over us and the truck took off. Out of site, out of mind. Now that I couldn’t see what was coming or where we were heading, I relaxed and convinced myself that the driver knew what he was doing.

Another 10 minutes we drove like this. Oliver, Victor Victor and I sitting down in the back of a pickup truck covered with a black tarp reeking of gasoline. I made the unfortunate decision to let Victor Victor sit in the middle of us, so not only did we bump shoulders every thirty seconds as the truck maneuvered through the potholes, he also fired questions at me. Freezing cold, soaking wet, and completely annoyed that I had even decided to come on this trip, I was in no mood to explain to Victor Victor that I don’t like Linkoln Park and that a discman costs $60. When we stopped a second time on a steep incline to clean the windshield, Victor Victor hopped out of the bed of the truck to help and I thought I might take the opportunity to put Oliver in between us again. We didn’t make it any further though.

The truck had stopped on a huge hill. Victor Victor quickly cleaned the windshield and was helping push the truck when the tires started spitting up mud and the driver realized he didn’t have enough momentum to get it going again. Stuck on the hill, the driver put the truck in reverse and slowly started to descend the hill, looking for a flat piece of the road where he could potentially gain enough speed to climb the hill. At this point, Oliver and I were still in the back of the truck peering out of the black tarp. The road looked like a small stream, the hill looked really steep, and Oliver and I traded expressions that said one thing, nervous.

The truck begin to crawl backwards down the mountain before it started to gain a little more speed than I thought necessary. Then, like a rollercoaster at the top of the hill releasing the train from the belt, I felt the brakes give out and the truck started careening down the road gaining speed. Oliver and I sat there frozen, watching as a large tree got closer and closer. It was at this precise moment when I should have been thinking of a way to bail, but things were happening too quickly and all I could think of was the chocolaty, fudgy taste of the cookies I should have been making. I hated myself for deciding to come on the trip and for convincing myself that I could make cookies any day.

I snapped back into reality as I watched the large tree narrowly miss the back bumper and the truck continue towards the cliff. Almost immediately after the tree, the truck fell into a large pothole on the edge of the cliff and it sat there balancing, deciding whether she wanted to fall and take all of the truck’s passengers with her or if she wanted to stay, nervously shaking…cliff, road, cliff, road. Oliver and I jumped out the back and the three men in the cabin hurried out as well. Safe on the road, we rehashed what had actually happened and reviewed the precarious position the truck was in. Then we realized the precarious position we were in. We were all dripping wet and cold, we were 20 kilometers from the nearest town/house, we didn’t have cell phone service, and we were left with only about an hour before nightfall.

Walking up the mountain with his cell phone over his head, Oliver ended up finding service and we were able to call Telpaneca’s mayor’s office and a fellow volunteer that lives in Telpaneca. Since we only had a couple of minutes left on the phone card, we weren’t able to talk for long and we were left a little confused as to whether or not the mayor’s office was sending someone, but they rolled up an hour or so later with a large Toyota Hilux (this story would have been exceptionally better had they arrived in a Chevy Silverado). They managed to pull the small truck off the edge and out of the pothole with a large chain attached to the Hilux. As they were working, the mayor told Oliver and I about another truck and three guys that tried to get up the same hill and weren’t so lucky. The truck’s brakes went out and rather than veering to the left-hand side of the road like we did, it drifted to the right and raced off the steep cliff, killing all three people on board. I felt sick to my stomach when he finished his story.

Victor Victor, Oliver, and I hitched a ride back into Telpaneca with the mayor, arriving around 9pm. Victor Victor was going to Somoto to find a mechanic while the driver and the other helper stayed in the mountains by the truck to make sure no one tried to steal it through the night. We stayed in a hostel and though I was wet, stinky, muddy, cold, and still hanging out with Victor Victor, it felt really nice/secure to lie down safely in a bed. We took the 5am bus back to my town and after saying my goodbyes to Oliver and Victor Victor, I got back into my house around 6:30am, 16 hours after I had initially planned on getting back. I relaxed a little, took a shower, washed my muddy clothes, and then made my way over to my host family’s house. That afternoon we made the best damn cookies I’ve ever tasted.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


My friends and I recently built this hammock system. Not as nice as a proper wallow spot in a L-shaped couch but about as close as you'll get in Nicaragua.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Sad Truth

Two months ago one of my best friends in my town collapsed in her backyard. Her family quickly found her and rushed her to the town health center where they took her to the department capital, Somoto, in a small, run down taxi. From Somoto, she was taken for a three and a half hour ride in an ambulance to a public hospital in Managua where she and her husband were told to go back to Somoto. There was no space and the doctors weren’t available. Since the ambulance had already left, they made the return trip in a school bus. After a stroke, eight hours of travel, and little consultation with any medical professionals, she returned to the same spot where she had collapsed in the morning.

A couple of days after the stroke, I was able to visit her in her home where she was recovering, and though I had been in her house several times before, I wasn’t prepared to see what I saw. Her husband led me into their dirt floor room where they had the small bed that she, her husband, and their 3 year old daughter share. My friend was half asleep with a bandana tied around the lower half of her face, covering the drooping, right hand side of her mouth. Her face was swollen and her glassy eyes rolled around cartoonish-like. A four inch foam mattress sat atop an old metal bed frame that sagged under her weight, nearly touching the ground. Above her, two plastic trash bags were tied to the cinder brick walls in what appeared to be a feeble attempt to catch the water that got through the old tile roof when it rained. The room was damp, dark, and horribly depressing.

I stayed in the room and visited with her and her husband for about 45 minutes. In my year and a half here, I’ve never felt so distinctly the divide between rich and poor. She was struggling to recover from a stroke, holed up in a damp, dirt floor room, sleeping on an old mattress under a leaking roof because she happened to be born in Nicaragua. I wanted to take her to the States. Take her to a hospital where they wouldn’t kick her out. Get her the care that would have prevented a 30 year old woman from having a stroke. Put her in a room worthy of a human being. Give her a small handful of the opportunities that I’ve been given.

While I was sitting in the room, her husband handed me what they always share with me, a cup of coffee, a warm tortilla, and a Nicaraguan cheese, cuajada. In her normal, joking fashion, my friend said, “Ahh, David, you’re used to everything now, even tortillas with cuajada.” I smiled and agreed, but it wasn’t true. I’m not and will never be used to the cruelty of chance and circumstance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sometimes I hate Nicaragua

This happened to my house a week ago.

Then I found this the following day. I've slept with one eye open since.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Roads in Nicaragua

This is why I'm currently evacuated to Managua. I took this movie when I was stuck in a rural community 6km from my town. It used to be a road, but with the rains it turned into a river.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What's New With Me

Since I last posted, I've been home to the states, finished up a major part of my project and survived a "hurricane." Here it all is taken from an email I sent out a couple of weeks ago.

As far as getting back from the states, it was a lot easier this time than it was when I came back after Christmas last year. It was still hard, but I’m just in a much better position now. When I cam back from Christmas I still hadn’t even started formally teaching, so all my work was ahead of me and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. I also came back and the entire month of January was vacation here so it was long and boring. This time most of my teaching is done for the year and everything is just so much easier now that I’ve been here awhile longer. I’m much more comfortable with my work, with my Spanish, with my friends, etc. so it was easier to come back to. It also helped that I have less than a year left to go and am planning on coming back again in December.

When I got back I had two really busy weeks. My class ends with a competition where all of the student business groups present their work and their business plans in the town. The best groups move on to a regional competition where they compete against other schools that have a PC volunteer teaching the same class, and the regional winners go on to a national competition in Managua. So, when I got back I had two weeks to finish teaching the class and organize the local competition. It was a lot of work, but ended up going pretty well.

I had all my groups present in class and from each section I picked the two or three best groups to present at the local competition. We used the town rec-center to hold the event. The first hour the kids sold their products at little tables and whoever showed up could walk around and look at the projects. Then when the power finally came back on (we had to wait for about an hour) each group presented for 8 minutes in front of 4 judges from the town and turned in their final reports. After the presentations, the judges picked the 3 winners that will now compete at regionals. It sounds like something pretty easy to pull off, but it was hard.

The night before I finally got the certificates sent to me from Managua but they ended up having an incorrect name on them, so I went to the internet café at night to make new ones. In the middle of making them, the power went out. The power goes out everyday here from 7:30am until 2pm so I asked the owner if she would open the next morning at 6:30am! She said yes, so I woke up at 6am and made the certificates. Unfortunately she didn’t have certificate paper so I went to a little office supply store here and banged on the door at 7am to see if they had any. They didn’t so we just had to use normal paper. Then I showed up at the rec center and realized I was the one who was supposed to clean it before the event, so I had to recruit kids around the town to bring mops and brooms to help me. When I finally got that done, I went back to the school to take the speakers, microphone, tables, and chairs over with the truck I had arranged to use. Not surprisingly the owner of the truck had decided to go to a different city that day even though he told me he’d be around. So with no other truck available, I recruited more kids to help me carry everything over by hand. I made two or three trips carrying tables and speakers on my back! The people in my town kept yelling at me, “David!! Por que esta trabajando como un burro?” David!! Why are you working like a donkey?

When we finally got started, things went well and I was actually really proud of my students. You think throughout the year that no one is getting anything, but some of them were listening. Granted these were the best 8 or 9 groups of the 24 or so I had so I’m not working with a high percentage of listeners, but nonetheless, I was really happy with the work they did. And it was nice to see them excited about the project and what they had done. It was funny watching them present…they were really nervous, shaking even at some points. My students are mostly 15 years old so most of the time they’re all tough and too cool for school, so it was great to see them so out of their element. When we were finishing the competition I even remember thinking that I wish I could be around for next year’s, so that goes to show what a high point it was for me.

Anyway, since then it’s been great. Now that most of my teaching part is over I’ve told my teachers that I’ll happily still plan class with them, but I’m not teaching anymore. This means I show up for class and help, but really don’t need to do anything…I’m really just preparing the three groups that are going to regionals. It’s a lot less stressful and less frustrating like this. Now when class is cancelled or it doesn’t go well I can just shrug my shoulders and go back to my hammock.

As you can imagine though I have a lot more time on my hands now, so I’m starting to plan some new projects. I’m currently rounding up about 20 names of good students in third year that I can give little classes to after school. These are the kids I’ll teach next year and I would like to give them some classes on leadership, teamwork, communication, presenting, math etc. that will really help them next year with my class. I’m going to try to do this after school where the youth group normally meets so I can kind of kill two birds with one stone. Prepare next year’s students and revitalize the youth group building which isn’t being used at all right now. We’ll see if it works.

I’m also going to try to start a bank like the bank I started at the local school at the community school I teach. I’ve had one meeting with them and things went well but then we never followed up on it, so I’ll have to be a bit more proactive. It sucks to always have to be the cheerleader.

The hurricane was really anticlimactic. All the volunteers around my area were moved to a larger city where we stayed in a hotel for 2 days. Nothing happened where we were (it was actually fairly nice out) but it did hit Nicaraguan’s Atlantic coast really hard. It’s actually been a lot worse here since. Last weekend I wasn’t around my town but apparently it rained horribly hard which explained why half my house was flooded when I got back. You can imagine I was happy about that.

Currently, I'm out of my site and staying in Managua until further notice. It's been raining for a week straight so Peace Corps evacuated a large portion of volunteers to Managua. My town is fine, but I couldn't get out to my rural school because the rivers have risen so much. On my way into Managua we passed a huge sink hole in the middle of the highway. It looked like an earthquake had hit. It'll be interesting to see how long we're holed up in Managua.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mid-Service Interview

Peace Corps volunteers here in Nicaragua put out a quarterly magazine for volunteers which among other things includes printed interviews with all the volunteers that are ending their service and all the volunteers that are beginning their service. An exit interview and an entrance interview. I’m obviously not quite finishing my time here yet, but since I’m exactly half way through my service in Palacaguina, I’ve decided to post a mid-service interview. Here it goes…


Dabeeeed (long “e”), Daveeees (long “e”), gringo de cero, Saquir del futuro (my neighbors claim that a six year old kid named Saquir looks like me. Hence, I’m the Saquir of the future.), chele (slang term/name used for anyone fair skinned), Profe, Teacher, Hombre David

Favorite Saying:

Va a dar su vuelta? – This is asked when I’m wondering around my town making the three or four visits to the houses of the families and friends I have here. You making your rounds?

Voy a hacer un mandado- Living in a small, small town is hard and the gossip is fierce. I can’t leave my house without one my neighbors asking me where I’m going or running into someone I know who asks me the same. Initially, this was annoying…why do I have to tell them where I’m going every time I leave my house? Now, I’ve learned how the Nicas handle it and it works like a charm. All I have to say is “I’m going to run an errand.” I can say this no matter what time it is and what I’m actually going to do and the questions stop. There’s a nice, unwritten agreement to quit asking questions when you get this response.

Adioooos- If you walk by someone here and say “hello” it means that you’re planning on slowing down and chatting for a few minutes. Luckily, you can conveniently say “goodbye” and quickly convey that you have no intention of talking at the moment. This is great at ending unwanted conversations before they even start.

Ni quiere a dios – God doesn’t even want it! After anything describing something undesirable, you can add emphasis to just how undesirable it is by saying “God wouldn’t even want it!” This is used A LOT. In my case, I like to use it with older people that I don’t know well because it’s a surefire way to make them laugh. For example, they might be asking me what Nica foods I’ve tried and when they ask me if I’ve tried their famous cow stomach soup, I’ll reply with all the emotion in me and a wrinkled up, disgusted face, “Ehhhhh…Ni quiere a dios!” This is met with all the little, old ladies looking amongst themselves confirming that the gringo actually just said what they heard, and it’s normally followed by hearty laughs. Stupid gringo.

Si dios quiere – If God wants it. After you make any type of commitment to do something in the future, you can end your promise with “If God wants it.” This is super convenient when you’re not sure if you really want to be a part of the commitment. For example if I try to set up a meeting with someone, we’ll plan it for the following day at a given time, but the conversation might end with me saying “see you tomorrow” and the man or woman saying “If God wants it.” How do I argue with that? If they don’t show up (this is often the case), I’m comforted knowing that it’s not their fault. God just didn’t want the person to walk the three blocks to my house or call me to say God didn’t give him the motivation today to have the meeting.

Hay mas tiempo que vida – There’s more time than life.

What have you done during your service?

I’ve learned Spanish, I’ve been laughed at, I’ve lost my dignity, I’ve read a lot, I’ve written a lot, I’ve cleaned my house one million times, I’ve taught a business course to 16 year olds, I’ve sweat, I’ve started a community bank, I’ve filled my quota of awkward moments for the rest of my life, I’ve helped out some businesses with accounting, I’ve appreciated my family, friends, and life back in the states more so than at any other point in my life, I’ve pretended like I know what I’m doing, I’ve learned a lot and taught a little, I’ve spent countless hours hanging out in rocking chairs talking about when the power will return.

If you could change one aspect of your time here so far, what would it be?

I’d make a little extra money every month. I’d come into my service knowing more Spanish than I did. Though the latrine really isn’t that bad, I might spend some more time searching for a house with a flushing toilet. I’d also change my roof to the much cooler tile roof.

What will you miss?

I’ll miss my five year old best friend/son, Sergio Luis. I’ll miss being able to show up at anyone’s house around lunchtime and be given a huge plate of food. I’ll miss the collective scream of excitement of an entire town when the power returns around 7pm. I’ll miss the coffee and biscuits that I get when I’m hanging out at my friends’ houses. I’ll miss being able to immediately round up a countless number of kids to play soccer, Frisbee, football when I’m sitting in my house bored. I’ll miss my hammock. I’ll miss the excited looks I get when I say “adios” to the 5-10 year olds that stare at me. I’ll miss my students that want to learn. I’ll miss working within an organization that is filled with passionate, caring, optimistic hard workers that believe in what they’re striving for.

Who/what would you bring back?

I’d definitely bring back Sergio Luis. It’s not that he has a terrible life here…quite the opposite, but I wish I could give him all that I’ve been given. I’d bring back the finger wave gesture to say “no” to anything. The lazy days…not all of them, but it’d be nice to have one or two every week in the states. I’d bring back the ability to have a best friend that is 5, another that is 25, and another that is 65.

How has the Peace Corps changed you?

I shave once every other week, not once every other day. I haven’t worn a shirt and tie in a year. I walk more slowly because really, there’s no rush. I no longer use the most efficient routes from point A to point B, I use the routes that offer the most shade. I’m much more patient. My friends in the states are 21-28 years old, while my friends here are less than 16 years old or older than 50 years old. I’m more outgoing. I dump a lot of salt on everything. My table manners are worse. I’m less judgmental. I’m over my aversion to public toilets. I’m more assertive. I show up to all engagements 30 minutes to an hour late. I’m more laid back.

Gained weight/lost weight:

I’ve lost about 10 pounds that I couldn’t afford to lose in the first place.

Would you do it all over again?

This is hard to say. I would definitely still do it if I was the same age and in the same situation I was in last year when I started, but I’m not sure if when I’m done here I could sign up again for another 27 months. It might just be too hard to ever want to do it again. Ask me two years after my service.

Have you thought about leaving early?

I’ve dreamt about it a lot, but I’ve never considered it seriously. I’ve just occasionally wanted to get Dengue Fever or break a bone so that I can get a couple of free weeks in Managua or the states.

Things you’ve missed the most:

Family and friends, trash meals, hot showers, carpet, couches, delivery pizza, Fall, Winter, anonymity, customer service, manners, having my own car, draft beer, Big Ten Burrito, Qdoba, clean streets, UM football, privacy, washing machine and dryer, new music, Best Buy, Borders, American convenience.

Friday, July 20, 2007


The most recent parasite that I had. Disgusting.

"It can also be transferred from animal or human feces."

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Check out my published photo in the newest edition of Schmap Atlanta. Click on "Photos" and scroll through to find my name under a picture of Atlanta Underground. Cool.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


During the first few months in my site, I became more familiar with the book from which I’d be teaching, and I thought that it was fairly straight forward. I had been here long enough to realize the Nicaraguan public school system would present a lot of challenges, but as for the class material I figured we could manage. Unfortunately, I greatly underestimated the challenges and the difficulty of the material.

As I’ve described in previous blogs, the Nicaraguan classroom is generally a small room that shares a back and front wall with other classrooms (picture a large rectangle split up into three or four classrooms). The upper half of the side walls are windows that allow a bit of air to pass through, thankfully. Unfortunately, those windows also let passing students to stand “outside” of the classroom to stare, whistle, cat call, or disrupt the students receiving class. This additional noise is added to the general chaos that results with 50 fifteen year olds inside a small classroom at the same time. I have to yell to teach. In short, the classroom environment is not conducive to learning. The lack of school-wide rules creates more problems.

In general, a 45 minute class lasts 30 minutes at most. Just long enough for the teacher to sit down in front of the class, read a few definitions, and then quickly return to the teachers’ lounge. She might leave the class with some work to do or let a student finish dictating the lesson to his classmates, but regardless, the class is left unsupervised. So, the last 15 minutes of class is normally recess, meaning the following teacher spends 15 minutes rounding up her students and getting them in their seats. This is, of course, when the teacher shows up. It’s not strange to have two or three teachers just not show up to work, leaving more than a few sections of students free, without supervision, for 45-90 minutes blocks. With short classes and absent teachers, it would make sense to have a rule that requires all students to remain in the classroom during class hours. There isn’t and the students, not surprisingly, take advantage of their free time. Last week, as I was arriving to my class, I watched a kid outside of the classroom pick up a desk, raise it above his head, and body slam it to the ground. Not once, but three times. I shrugged my shoulders, hid a smile and ignored the problem. If it were my way, that kid wouldn’t even be allowed outside of the classroom, thus avoiding the body slamming problem. So, in my book, since they (the teachers and principals) created the problem, they can fix it. It won’t be fixed though. To go along with the lack of rules, there’s also a lack of consequences.

Now, I’m not yet old enough to have completely forgotten about my high school experience. I can remember the troublemakers, the disruptions, the lack of respect for authority, etc. I imagine that I share a lot of my frustrations with any teacher in the states. But, in the states, the teachers and principals always have the trump card…grades. If you acted up too much or didn’t turn in your homework your grades suffered accordingly. I thought I would have the same leverage here.

We are asked to turn in grades about once a month. In my first month, I graded all of the homework and was slightly discouraged when many of my students didn’t turn in anything. I put their names on the board, I talked to them after class, I told them they could still turn it in and get some points. Most of them didn’t care or listen, so when I tallied up the scores, I had almost 20 students in every section who were failing the class (below 60%), not because they were doing poorly on homework or quizzes, or because I was grading strictly, but because they didn’t do anything. Nothing, zero, not one piece of work handed in. I turned in the grades to my counterpart so that she could turn the final copy in to the principal’s office, and when I saw the final grades that were on the students’ report cards, two kids had failed. The 18 or so other students that should have failed were “bumped up” to 60% or above. Why? Because a teacher that gives too many failing grades will lose her job. I have since left all of the grading to my counterparts.

I suppose the line between passing and failing is arbitrary anyway, right? The difference between 59% and 60% doesn’t mean much unless a school system has decided that 60% means you’re passing and 59% means you’re failing. And if you’re applying to college an admissions officer doesn’t care if it was 59% or 60%, passing or failing, you’re still not getting into college. But, again, that’s not the case here. Students who move on to university take a short entrance exam and if they have the money to pay tuition, they’re accepted. So, a student here could do very little in high school, count on being “bumped up” to 60% in his classes, graduate high school, take a university entrance exam, and become a university student the following year.

All of this can probably explain why Juan Antonio turned in a recent test half blank. When I quickly looked over the test and handed it back to him, mentioning that half of it was blank, he took the test back, waited five minutes and turned it in again half blank. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the answers, (immediately before the test we had done a review which included all of the answers) he just didn’t want to do it. He scored a 14/60…and passed with flying colors. I’m not sure I would be bothered to write the definition of a market if my grade didn’t matter either. Whether you’re body slamming desks, failing to turn in homework, or turning in half finished exams, there are few consequences.

Given the poor environment and the lack of consequences, it should come as no surprise that my students are a lot further behind than I had anticipated, making my class much more difficult. For example, I did not anticipate that my students would have a hard time with a market study because I assumed they knew what a market and a survey was. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I explained that a market is a group of people with specific characteristics. Going on our third week teaching market study, I still have most of the kids yelling out “a place where you sell and buy!” when I ask them what a market is. As for explaining what a survey is, I patiently described the purpose and how we do one. I have kids in the front of the class act out surveyor and surveyee. I give them examples and finally, ask them to come up with 10 survey questions about their business to ask potential clients. Why would creating 10 questions be easy though, if you’re 15 and have only ever been asked to copy and memorize? In the end, I have a counterpart that says I give the students too much work and maybe 5 or so kids in each class truly understand what I was trying to teach.

In the coming weeks, I’ll start teaching unit cost for a product and the groups will begin setting the prices on their products using a defined % profit margin. If a group has a product that costs C$10 to make and wants to make 10% profit on each product they will set its price at C$11. Simple enough…if you know some basic math and understand percentages. Unfortunately, the teachers don’t even understand percentages. Each month when we turn in grades we have to have 100 points exactly because no one understands how to turn 140/150 into a number between 0 and 100. I foresee problems for my students and partial insanity for me.

This insanity will be added on to the feelings of frustration/worthlessness that surround me when I show up to class and find an empty classroom because class was cancelled for unexplainable, inexcusable reasons and no one bothered to tell me, or when I lose the first 15-20 minutes of class because most of my students and my counterpart don’t show up on time, or when my counterparts are changed in the middle of the year without telling me. Two or three times a week, I want to throw up my arms in the air and quit. I want to shake all the people I work with and get a logical, rational answer to my question, WHY???!!! I want to pick up a desk and body slam down to the ground.

But, when things go well, when I can tell my students are paying attention and learning something, when someone answers a question correctly, or when I have a counterpart teach a class correctly-beautifully!-I want to move on, continue trying and improving. I’m losing on most levels, but the few wins and the small successes keep me in it.

So, here I am just shy of the halfway point in the year. We’re certainly not where I thought we would be at this point, but I didn’t anticipate some of the problems/challenges. My expectations and standards are drastically lower than when I started the year, but even with the drop, they are higher than what my students are used to; and that’s what I hope for now, that my students are challenged and held to a higher standard than what they’re used to. They’re not going to learn everything that I want them to learn in the class. Maybe they’ll pick up a few things here and there…maybe not. But, I hope, in the end that they expect more from themselves because they had a teacher that expected more from them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Communicating like a Nica

When I was home over Christmas, I shared with my family the Nicaraguan custom to point with chin and lips (not your hand or finger) when you want to point out a location. So, for about two weeks we walked around the house puckering up our lips and laughing. With this in mind, I share with you how to communicate like a true Nicaraguan.

· When you want someone to repeat what they said or you don’t understand: Squint or scrunch up your nose.

· When you want to say hello to someone across the street: Extend your arm parallel to the ground at waist level. Put your palm up and extend your neck so your chin points up.

· When you want to say someone is stingy or cheap: Flex your bicep and tap the bottom of your elbow with your opposite hand.

· When you are talking about money: Extend your pointer fingers and slide one across the other as if you were peeling a carrot.

· When you want to say no: Extend your pointer finger and aggressively wag your hand back and forth.

· When you want to say someone has a lot of money: Extend your pointer finger and thumb and hold them out in front of you so that they form an invisible outline of a giant stack of money.

· When you are talking about drinking beer or rum: Extend your thumb and pinky finger (the hang loose sign) and hold your thumb at your mouth. Move your hand up and down as if drinking from a glass.

· When you want to say something is crowded or full: Touch all fingers and thumb together on one hand.

· When you want to eat or are talking about eating: Hold your palm in front of your mouth, fingers together. Snap your fingers back and forth near your mouth.

· When you want to refer to your diarrhea: Make a fist and lock your elbow into the side of your body. Move the lower part of your arm up and down while grimacing.

· When you want to point to something: Pucker up your lips and aim where you want to point (also works to jokingly indicate that your friend is crazy when he’s telling a dumb story).

· When you want to get someone to come towards you: Extend your arm in front of your body and move your wrist up and down with your fingers pointed towards the ground.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

One Dollar a Day

In my research leading up to joining the Peace Corps, I read a lot about the number of people who live on one dollar or less a day (1 in 6 people in the world). Reading that number from the comfort of a $720/month apartment, it was hard to even imagine how that was even possible, one dollar per day. Though the number still shocks me, 11 months into my service I have a much better idea of what one dollar a day means.

I get paid 3600 cordobas per month, the equivalent of $200 per month or $6.67 per day per month. This monthly salary is certainly higher than most people within my town, yet I still manage to spend every last cord every month. Since I’ve been keeping track of where I’ve been spending my money, I’ve found that almost a third of my salary is spent on what I define as “entertainment.” This includes anything that I buy or do that isn’t needed, such as a night out with friends, a trip to visit another volunteer, gorging myself on McDonald’s or Burger King when I’m in Managua, going to the beach, having a beer or some rum, etc. Now, I could make a strong case that this “entertainment” is actually an absolute necessity considering it’s the only thing that keeps me sane here, but for the sake of argument, I’ll say it’s unneeded.

So, if I subtract a third of my salary (3600-1200) that I spend on completely unneeded things, I’m left with 2400 cordobas, $133.33 per month or $4.44 per day per month. At this level, I can still live very comfortably and still have a lot of unneeded expenses. For example, I am able to rent my own house, to buy expensive gringo food like peanut butter and olive oil, to use the cyber café, to have a cell phone, and to eat meat a few times a week. But, you can imagine that this isn’t the case when you make 2400 cordobas per month and you’re supporting a family of four or five.

My good friend here is a teacher at the local high school, making about 2500 cordobas per month, $139 per month or $4.63 per day per month. Her husband occasionally has part time work, but is mostly unemployed, so the family lives on and depends on my friend’s salary. $4.63 per day per month divided by the four person family means each person lives on about $1.16 per day (defined as moderate povery). They all share a bedroom, in a house with 5 other extended family members. They eat rice, beans, and tortillas everyday with an occasional serving of meat. Besides a few trips to neighboring cities, they rarely leave the town. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when I asked her if she could come to a training conference two hours away, she couldn’t go because she didn’t have the 15 cordobas to pay the fare. $0.83 cents.

Unfortunately, the teachers, including my friend, are the lucky ones within the country. It’s a horrible monthly wage (the lowest in Central America), yes, but it’s still a monthly wage that is almost always paid and paid on time, unlike the majority of the other work that is available. According to the Central Bank of Nicaragua, 64% of the people employed are working in the informal sector performing such work as producing foods for local consumption, making handicrafts from local materials, or working as tailors, shoemakers, shoe shiners, carpenters, etc. They are self employed, making little money month to month, and at times, making less than what’s needed for survival. 48% of the population lives below the poverty line, making Nicaragua the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (Haiti is number one).

So, given the money that most people are living with, my salary of $6.67 per day puts me at a level that very few in Nicaragua reach. Tack on to my salary the health benefits I have through Peace Corps and an American credit card, and I'm one of the most fortunate persons in my town, despite living at a level that is lower than any I've experienced in my life. And though I now have a better idea of what one dollar a day means and I can see everyday the people living at that level, I'm convinced I could not do it. Whether I'm sitting in a $720/month apartment in Ann Arbor or a $27/month house in Nicaragua, one dollar a day is not right.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Unorganized thoughts on my first month teaching

Finally, I feel like I’ve started teaching. Since arriving here 9 months ago, I’ve gone through 3 months of training, preparing me to teach, and almost six months of general observation and practice teaching within my site. Though the time has been valuable in many respects, it feels good to finally get started with my main project.

I work in two high schools in Palacaguina. I have three sections of 50-60 students in the main school and one section of 18 students in a school about 15 minutes outside of the town. I teach a Junior Achievement type course called La Empresa Creativa to the rough equivalent of US sophomores/juniors. Throughout the year, the students work in small groups developing a business plan and managing their small business. Most of the content is very hands-on as opposed to general business theory or definitions. For instance, the groups do a market study to determine what business to open, they sell shares in their company to fund the necessary start-up capital, and they keep track of the business accounting while producing and selling their product. For the most part, I really enjoy the material and the idea of the class, but it’s certainly not easy teaching it in Nicaragua.

A normal class has around 50 students and one teacher. There are no books for the students and besides a general outline of subjects to cover, the teachers have no curriculum. Oftentimes, the teachers are left to find class material on their own in libraries or the internet. Though they try to match specific skill sets with what class a teacher will teach, it doesn’t always work out, leaving, for example, a teacher who has studied English in college, teaching high school math.

Photocopying books or homeworks is too expensive, so generally, the teacher will copy down in a notebook definitions and one or two examples which he/she can dictate to the students during class. The students copy the definitions into their own notebooks, memorize the answers to homework examples and regurgitate everything on a test. There’s very little discussion or critical thinking involved in any class. In fact, many times when the teacher begins to discuss a point during the class, the students immediately start misbehaving and talking because they know that all they need to know for the test is what’s copied down in their notebooks.

So, given what the students are used to, you can imagine that it’s hard to teach a hands-on, project oriented class in your second language. But, things in my case aren’t too, too bad. For one, Peace Corps volunteers, over the last five years, have developed a book to teach the class, so I don’t have to make things up on the fly. The book is nicely written and well organized which has made it easy to plan my classes and give my students a fairly good idea of what we hope to accomplish during the year. I’m also working with three Nicaraguan teachers, meaning we team teach the class during the year, with the idea that at the end of my two year service, there’s two or three teachers trained and prepared to continue teaching the class. Though I’m doing most of the teaching right now, my Nicaraguan counterparts and I plan the class together and they help me within the classroom. And finally, I only have one 90 minute class period per section per week. In other words, my counterparts and I plan one class on Sunday, and then I give the same class four different times.

But, though the book, my counterparts, and the schedule are indeed helpful, it doesn’t mean things go smoothly. Most of my initial classes have been spent trying to teach things that I expected my students to already know. For instance, when I tried to form six groups by counting each student one through six, the students blankly stared at me. After getting them to understand how it would work and telling them where each group would meet, we counted off. In the end, half the class had forgotten their number and the other half asked me where their number was meeting. It was a disaster. But, the next week we did the same, though this time I taped numbers on the wall where each group was going to meet. Besides the four or five questions I got at the beginning of the class of why there were numbers on the wall, the process worked much better.

In the second week I spent almost ten minutes teaching how we were going to turn in homeworks. Normally if they have homework to turn in, the students surround the teacher as he/she walks in the door, waving papers in his face, screaming “Profe, Profe!!” By the time the teacher has collected all the papers and navigated his way out of the maze of students, no less than five minutes of class time has been lost and every student is out of his or her seat. It bothered the hell out of me watching this last year. So, the first day they had homework to turn in I turned away all the students that ran up to me, telling them I would collect it at the start of class. They all sat back down confused. At the start of class when I asked the students in the middle to pass their homework to the corners and the students in the corners to pass all of the homeworks to the front, I got more blank, confused stares. After showing them an example of what I wanted, the homeworks were turned in correctly. I wonder if they’ll remember the process this week.

Class discipline is also hard with 50 students. As I mentioned, the students aren’t used to answering questions or discussing material, so when I’m in the front teaching, the classroom is horribly loud and half of the students aren’t paying attention. But, if I start to write anything on the blackboard everyone quiets down and starts to scribble. I could seriously write whatever nonsense I wanted and they would copy it down without questions. Though it’s much easier to give a class with just definitions, I try to ask questions and hold discussions even if it means, right now anyway, that I have to yell over the other voices. I try to get them to raise hands rather than yell out the answer, I call on the troublemakers and put them on the spot, I praise the ones that are listening or participating, but it’s a long, uphill battle to reverse what the students have learned over the last 10 years in their other classrooms. I wish I could more accurately describe what the class room environment is like, but suffice it to say that it’s horribly tiring and completely frustrating trying to teach the students in a more dynamic manner than the simple dictation they’re used to.

On the other end is my class of 18 students at the rural school who wouldn’t talk if their life depended on it. The class is dead quiet no matter what I’m doing. I could walk in dressed like Batman and they would stare at me with the same confused, blank looks they give me everyday. I ask a question and 18 pairs of eyes immediately fall to the floor.

“Ramiro, name a business you know from your community.” Ramiro, sits there nervously pretending to scribble something in his notebook. I wait for what seems like hours and what must seem to him like days. I try to help him, give him examples, re-phrase the question so that all he has to say is yes or no, but I get nothing until Nubia helps him out, bailing the rest of the class out, including me. She’s the only one that ever talks or answers questions. One student out of 18. So though it’s a lot easier and more relaxing teaching at this school, it’s equally frustrating.

Overall I think things are going well given what I’ve heard from other volunteers and how I feel. It’s certainly frustrating and even though my students probably don’t quite understand yet why we’re teaching this class, I think the class is important specifically in this country. According to USAid, of 100 students that enter first grade, 11 graduate from high school. So, arguably, the ability to create and manage your own small business is more important than many of the more general high school subjects. And even still for the lucky few that move on and study at the university level, Nicaragua doesn’t have and isn’t generating sufficient places of work for its rapidly growing population. The chances that a university graduate finds work within his or her field is low, meaning these graduates need to know, at least in a general way, how to create and run a business. Will my students actually walk away from my class with this knowledge? I’m not sure, but if they raised their hands more in my big classes and weren’t so shy in my small class, I think we’d be a lot further ahead. We’ll see where we are in a few weeks.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Peace Corps Top Universities

A list of the colleges and universities that produced the most volunteers in 2006. University of Michigan sits at number 4 with 82 volunteers.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Syllabus Week

I had friends in college that used to call the first day of classes “Syllabus Day.” The idea was that on the first day of school, professors wouldn’t do much more than hand out the syllabus and talk about the class in general terms. For the most part it was true and it also happened to be a convenient excuse to skip the first week of school. With this in mind, I approached my first week of classes with low expectations, simply hoping I would be able to introduce the class to my students and to talk about what I expected of them. And now after a full week of “school” I realize how naively high those expectations were.

I arrived at the school at 8am on Monday, exactly the time I was told to show up. Though there were a handful of students that were waiting, I was the first teacher to show up. The others wandered in around 8:30. I felt a little weird being the first teacher there on the first day of school, but I’ve had plenty of experience waiting at the school. On my first day of classes in July I was told to show up on Thursday at 7:00am. I did as I was told, but then had to wait an hour before anyone else arrived. They had failed to mention that since the hour had “sprung forward,” 7am actually meant 8am. When the other teachers arrived and told me why I had had to wait, I cursed every single one of them under my breadth. Then I made sure, in the future, to confirm all meetings with a discussion as to whether the person was talking hora vieja, hora solar, or hora normal.

So, the late arrival of the teachers didn’t surprise me much. What did surprise me was that by 9am we were all still sitting in the teachers’ lounge not doing anything. Meanwhile, most of the students had arrived and were hanging out, running around, fighting, dancing, and enjoying “syllabus day.” Again, the students’ behavior wasn’t much different than any other normal day of school, but it was a little more active considering it was the first day of school and that all of the students had been asked to arrive at 8am as opposed to only half of them. At 10am we had a 20 minute “assembly” where the principal and the government representative spoke to all students and staff. At 10:30 the students were dismissed for the day and asked to return on Tuesday at 8am.

Not very productive I thought, but I had seen the warning signs. The two weeks prior to the first day of class, the teachers and administration spent the days waiting for the parents to arrive at the school to sign up their sons and daughters. I thought it was a bit strange that no one seemed to be working on a class schedule or assigning students to the morning or afternoon shift. The Friday before the first day of class the teachers didn’t know what classes they’d be teaching, if they’d be teaching in the morning or afternoon, or what their class schedule would look like. Why did I think that the first day of school would be organized?

Tuesday was more of the same disorganization and chaos. On Monday afternoon, the administration had decided which students would have classes in the morning and which in the afternoon. How did they let the students know Tuesday morning? They tried to congregate all of the students (900 strong) in front of the school to read students’ names and what shift they were assigned to. Did it work? Hahaha…

After getting through no more than 30 names, it was too loud to hear the teacher. So, they decided to give a list of students to each teacher and then allowed the students to run around trying to find their name. I didn’t ask why they couldn’t just tape the lists to the front wall. In fact, after I saw a girl start to cry because she wasn’t in the section she wanted to be in, I left too annoyed to stay to see what would happen next.

By Wednesday morning my expectations were low. All I really wanted to know was who I would be working with and when my classes would be. It didn’t happen. They got pretty far creating, rearranging, and discussing the schedule they made on the chalk board, but it was completely erased at 11am. At that point, I told my principal that she could call me when they knew my schedule and I left.

Though the tentative schedule was finally agreed to on Friday, they all tell me it will change. As for the students, they got through the first week with a little more than an hour of class time. Which I suppose is a good thing considering that many of the students decided not to show up until Thursday. At the rural school where I teach, 28 of the 150 students showed up on the first day. Is this because the students know the teachers won’t be organized/prepared or are the teachers unorganized/unprepared because they know very few of the students show up? I’m not sure (though there’s no excuse for the teachers being as unprepared as they were), but “syllabus day” just turned into “syllabus week” and I haven’t even gotten to address my students yet. We should have been so lucky in college.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Return to the States, Return to Nicaragua

December 21 came quickly. I can remember when Doug Emeott visited Nicaragua in early August and was only a couple weeks shy of returning home after a summer abroad in Costa Rica. We talked about everything he would do within the first week home…where he would eat, what he would drink, how long the first hot shower would be. As much as I enjoyed dreaming about the states, I didn’t let myself dwell on it too much. December seemed too far away to even entertain thoughts of home. But, the weeks and months passed quickly and I was soon on the plane, returning after eight months.

I landed in Houston on my way to Phoenix and was a bit shocked at the development. There seemed to be too many houses, roads, and cars. The number of pools and golf courses that we flew over was ridiculous. Most of my thoughts were along these same lines during the remainder of the vacation…every store seemed too big, every road seemed too crowded, every restaurant seemed to have too many choices, and (thankfully) every employee seemed to be too nice (Nicaragua could use some customer service training).

So besides the initial shock of how big everything was, nothing seemed too different and my vacation didn’t disappoint. The food, hot showers, and flushing toilets were everything I had dreamt about and more. I had forgotten not only how much we have, but also how nice everything is. Everything was so comfortable and pretty. It was hard to leave when the time came. The two weeks, as expected, went more quickly than I wanted.

I haven’t seriously thought of ending my service early and the thought never crossed my mind when I returned on January 4th. But, I certainly wanted to stay in the states for at least another week, and I found myself jealous of the volunteers that were close to ending their service. I thought that I might be able to ease myself back into life here, but that hope quickly vanished when I landed in Managua, got to my hotel room and found no hot water and mosquitoes. If that didn’t remind me where I was, the next day, with its stifling heat, three hour school bus ride back to my site, and rice and bean dinner, certainly did. I was back and there was no hiding.

I was more shocked upon my return to Nicaragua than my return to the US. I had forgotten how much seemed normal when I left. Though I cursed the cold water shower for a few days (and my neighbors’ stereo at 6:00am every morning), I quickly adjusted to the obvious differences like food, latrines, and power outages. The hardest part was readjusting to everything that goes along with being the foreigner.

Before I left, I had gotten used to the stares on the bus and in the street. I knew how to handle the conversation I have long since grown tired of with the guy on every bus that wants to know where I’m from, what I’m doing, if I’d like to meet his family, or if I know his brother in Miami I could brush off the drunks in the park that want to shake my hand and then ask me for five pesos. I could ignore my host family’s constant questions as to why I don’t want to come to their home more often, why I don’t want to eat there, and why I’m not staying to visit more even though I’ve been there for two hours. The kids that knock on my door at 8am wanting to play, the neighbors’ kids watching me through the fence as I clean my clothes, and every kid’s questions as to how much this or that costs in the US…it all seemed normal when I left.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that go along with all of it. Coming from the US where you can be as anonymous as you want and you are afforded a large level of privacy from the time you’re very young, it’s hard to adjust to being an object that everyone wants a piece of. For example, I often feel guilty if during the middle of the day I decide to relax in my hammock and read as opposed to spending time with my host family or other friends. When I do decide to stay in my house I have to shut my door and windows to avoid being bothered by the kids on my block. Everyday from 8am to 8pm, if I want to be alone, I need to hide in my house. The only time I feel safe to do whatever I want to do without guilt and without fear of being bothered is after 8pm.

But, the lack of privacy is only one part. The feeling of out of “placeness” also weighs heavy. Whether I’m with people I know or strangers I always feel a bit out of my element, uncomfortable. It’s surely a combination of many things, not least of which is the differences in culture and language. But, this combination adds up to a never ending feeling that I’m off my guard. Off my guard but always on call…Surprisingly, I had learned to deal with all of this before I left, but the first week back was especially difficult.

Now, almost three weeks since returning, I feel normal again. I’ve gotten used to all the stuff I was used to before I visited the states, and again feel confident and proud of what I’m doing. During the first week back when it was pretty rough going, I kept reminding myself of what I was doing in my job a year ago and how unhappy I was. Nothing could be that bad and I quickly realized that the negative and challenging aspects of living here are far outweighed by the positives. Though I’m still jealous of the food they’ll be eating and the comforts they’ll be returning to in a few short weeks, I feel kind of bad for the volunteers that are ending their service. Their two year vacation/retirement is ending. Mine is still just beginning.