Monday, December 07, 2009

My Old Home

My old abode getting a face lift. Fleas and all. Good luck, Penny.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selling Detroit

Check out Time's Assignment Detroit's Selling Detroit project. Pretty cool idea, although I found most of the ads fairly underwhelming. I like Kid Rock's endless ambassadorship for his city but something tells me he's not really the one to attract a bunch of young creative types.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Commute

I finish class and walk out to the main road. I wait fifteen minutes before a truck approaches and I extend my thumb. It slows down and I run to catch up to it, jumping on just as it comes to a complete stop. I slip the front half of each foot onto the metal bumper that offers a narrow eight inches from the back of the truck. The heels of my feet dangle off the back but I use both hands to grab onto the frame of the truck and feel secure. I bang my hand against the side of the truck signaling to the driver that I’m ready to feel the wind. We depart.

The truck has a flat bed that extends ten feet from a small two person cab. The frame of the bed is six feet high, solid metal along the lower half and three one foot metal sheets spaced six inches apart surround the upper half. The bed is, unfortunately, filled with a very fine, dry dirt and as the driver shifts into second and third gear, the increasing speed sends the dirt through the cracks and spaces of the bed frame. When we reach a healthy speed, the tires kick up the dust of the parched dirt road and I am completely engulfed by earth. Dust from the road and dirt from the truck is all I breathe, hanging off the back of my hitchhiked ride.

I close my eyes, trying to escape, but the darkness throws off my fragile balance. I look down towards the road and the cloud is less intense but the road dizzying, quickly passing below. There is no respite from the cloud. It throws its dirt into my eyes and forces its dust into my mouth. I decide the best option is to stick my head around the side of the truck where the dirt blowing out of the bed is less intense. I squint my eyes and imagine what the driver sees in his side view mirror. A decapitated head with narrow eyes peeking out from the side of the truck.

I struggle to hold on. Putting my head to the side of the truck makes my grip less secure and my arms are quickly fatigued. I curse myself for sticking my thumb out and accepting the 15 minute ride into town on the back of a large truck filled with dirt. I swear to only hitchhike rides from pickup trucks. To wait longer for the bus. To buy a bike. To walk.

We reach the paved section of the road and the dust subsides. I don’t dare take a hand off the back of the truck to wipe the dust from my eyes which are barely open, still shielding themselves from the truck dirt. As we get closer to the center of town, I hear the familiar cries of “Oye, David!” from those in the street and I blindly return the greeting. The truck stops at the park and lets me off. I wipe my face off with the inside of my shirt and slap my chest, legs, shoulders, and book bag. Giant mushroom clouds emanate from each slap. I walk to the cab of the truck and look the driver in the eye.

-Thanks for the ride.

-Any time.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

MGoBlues

What can explain the struggles of the Wolverines over the past two seasons? The new coach? The decimated defense? The young quarterbacks? All of these are probably contributing factors, but I'm fairly certain that the root cause of our trouble is much more horrifying.

Somehow over the last two seasons UM has gone from pounding our collective chest in superiority once/game:



To hanging our collective head in nerdy shame:



If I can't watch a winning football team, can't I at least watch a winning commercial?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bosshole!

I've been working on this over the past few weeks and after some final tweaking this weekend, I think it's ready to go. I wish I knew more html and web development but this has been a fun experiment to try to learn a few things. And now I just need folks to start submitting.

Take a look, let me know what you think, pass along to friends, share your stories.

www.bossholestories.com


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Big Nic

Vicente Padilla, The Big Nic from Chinandega, is pitching for the Dodgers today in the NLCS. Ha!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

San Jose to Palacaguina and Beyond

There are a lot of memories that still come back effortlessly. I’ll see or hear something that will trip some deep subconscious recollection and I’ll spend the next few minutes in a reflective trance reliving, smelling, tasting, or feeling a specific moment from my service. And most of the memories are still surprisingly clear: the sulfur like taste that always preceded the parasites; the humid, slightly warm earthen smell of my backyard after a rain; the trapped, clingy feeling of a pair of blue jeans on the hottest days. I’ll hear a song and think of a town dance, or I’ll see a school bus and think of my “commute” to a rural school. These memories come quickly, and sometimes unexpectedly, but they are mostly fleeting thoughts, no longer than a few minutes. As effortlessly as I retrieve them, my brain quickly re-files these subconscious notes when I’m done reminiscing and I simply continue with my day. But there are still memories and thoughts that I think about more regularly; thoughts, feelings, and memories that wait for me to fully process, sitting in my more immediate conscious as they wait to be properly filed. Where do I put a memory that I revisit everyday as I get on the #22 bus to go to work?

I was in San Jose, Costa Rica, finished with a week long vacation trekking around the country with two friends from home. My friends were flying home that afternoon, and I was making the long haul back to Palacaguina alone. I left the hostel very early, just as the sun was breaking, and flagged down a cab to take me to the bus station. There was a time, early in my service, that a solo cab ride was a deeply frightening chore, but I had more than a year’s worth of experience at this point, and compared to the unruly streets of Managua, where I cut my chops, San Jose was child’s play. The red cab was a newer model Toyota Yaris and actually had a meter, something you’d never get in Managua, and I confidently told the driver where I was headed. It was a long trip across the city, and the driver, as most drivers in San Jose and Managua were prone to do, struck up a conversation. He asked all of the standard questions and I answered with all of my standard replies, replies so well rehearsed that, when finished, the driver observed “your Spanish is very good,” and asked me where I learned. When I told him that I lived in Nicaragua, he started to make fun of the Nicaraguan culture and people. There was a common mistrust and, at times, soft hatred between the Ticos and Nicas, and since I considered myself more Nica than Tico, I defended my people and friends by cutting the driver off midsentence and using some classic Nicaraguan phrases. He laughed and was impressed with how well I knew the country. After he dropped me off at the bus station, I was pretty impressed myself. Not with just how well I knew Nicaragua, but with the simplicity of the trip across Costa Rica’s capital city. Flagging the cab, giving directions, conversing, joking, defending, all done as if I was in my hometown. It had been so easy. I got on the bus thinking about how impossible this all would have been just a few months prior.

The uneventful bus ride was a welcomed rest before reaching the routine chaos of the border. The bus pulled up and parked among five to ten other busses. I had to get through customs and then, on the Nicaraguan side, catch a different bus to Managua. The border, like the day’s heat, was reaching it’s peak hour and though I had passed through on my way to Costa Rica, the border was still confusing. There were no signs or directions about where to wait in line or what window to visit first, and as I tried to sort out the disorder, I was persistently hounded by bus exhaust, offers to change my money, and calls of the next bus departure. When I finally found the right line and started to wait, a guy approached offering to get me through customs in five minutes. He flashed an absurdly fake, homemade badge and tried to convince me that he officially worked at the border; his Indianapolis Colts tshirt said otherwise, but the line was long, the sun was hot, and I was still 10 hours away from my home, so I was a little more willing to hear him out. I quickly sized him up as he was convincing me and decided to take a shot. I bargained him down from $10 to $5 to shepherd me through the whole process, and when I agreed he took me up to the front of the line and we waited to the side. He folded up the $5 bill and slipped it into my passport. When he took both from my hands and walked away towards the customs window I was ready to chase after and tackle him the second he took one step in any direction not towards the window. But my initial judgment proved legitimate and I watched him walk straight to the window and slip my passport into the hands of the customs agent. The customs agent put it to the side and tended to a few more folks from the line. As I waited, still curious as to how this all might go down, I was cautiously optimistic, and when I saw the agent stamp my passport and quickly pass it back to my partner in crime, I was downright ecstatic. I had shaved off 2 hours of waiting in the midday sun. I did feel a tinge of guilt for supporting such overtly illegal behavior, but I convinced myself that I deserved the break. I had been beaten down and taken advantage of so much over the last several months that it was about time I notched a point in my column. I had beaten the system this time, and though I had to cheat to do it, it felt good. I strutted through the long border area and officially into the country I called home. The Nicaraguan, 1980s yellow school busses with “Jesus Christ is Lord” decals across the windshield waited in an unorganized, trash filled, dirt parking lot. Welcome back.

The four hour bus ride into Managua was uncomfortably warm and crowded. Driving through the southern, Pacific Coast part of the country, with its unforgiving heat and endless fields of sugar cane, always made me appreciate the cooler air and lush mountain landscapes I was used to in the north. I turned on my iPod to discourage any would be talkers and watched the country pass by, imagining I was on an air conditioned Grey Hound. My imagination had gotten good at these games and I found them to be one of my favorite defense mechanisms. No shower was too cold, no parasite too painful, no ray of sun too hot, when I could mentally checkout of the present and check-in to a Ritz Carlton. So I sat there, on a school bus with no shocks, and pretended for four hours I was sitting in first class, riding on air.

When we got into Managua, I knew I had under two hours to make it to Mayoreo to catch the last express bus up north. I knew the express bus schedule by heart and had learned the hard way what it meant if I didn’t make it there on time: a three hour trip standing in the aisle salivating for a seat or a five hour trip on a bus that picked up any man, woman, child, or chicken that needed a ride. I wanted neither, so I grabbed my bag a little tighter, slipped my wallet into my front pocket, and stepped off the bus, into Nicaragua’s overwhelming capital.

Immediately, I had four cabbies surrounding me and grabbing my arm and bag. This wasn’t always the case in Managua, but this bus station was particularly bad and the cabbies were more aggressive than normal. Because there were no meters in the taxis, you always had to negotiate your price before getting into a cab. If you looked like a tourist, you were given outrageously high prices in American dollars. If you were a tourist, you happily paid this price because it was still cheap compared to the States. If you were a Peace Corps volunteer, you knew the Nicaraguan prices you should pay and let the cabbies know you weren’t some rookie. Turning them down and sneering at their high prices was always rewarding, and I relished the opportunity to brush off the four cabbies grabbing me. I scoffed at their high prices and as I was walking out to the street to flag down a different cab, I mentally raised two middle fingers and swung them in the direction of my aggressors. I got in a cab that offered me the standard fare, C$40. $2.

On our way to the Mayoreo bus station, I had the taxi take me to a “take-out” restaurant I knew of. For another C$35 I wolfed down a piece of fried chicken, a plate of rice and beans, and two tortillas. I ate this quickly, in the cab, without utensils. There was a time, in my first year, that this would have horrified me, eating from a roadside stand, in a taxi, with my bare hands. But time and experience had softened many fears, and my rules for sanitary conditions no longer applied.

We pulled into the station right on time, and I didn’t waste any time making it to the ticket window. Ten minutes later I boarded the bus and was headed north. The hardest part of my journey, the border crossing and navigating Managua, was complete, and as the bus got just north of Ciudad Dario, I felt the humid air of the lowlands turn into the fresh, mountain air of the north. I knew this bus ride like the back of my hand, and the enjoyable scenery always made it a relaxing three hour ride. I got off at “La Shell,” the stop along the Panamerican Highway where a side road took you six kilometers into Palacaguina. “La Shell” used to be in reference to an old Shell gas station. It no longer existed, but those names had a tendency to stick and if you asked why they didn’t just start calling the stop Palacaguina, you’d get a look that suggested you were the crazy one. It was best to leave some things alone.

There were two taxis waiting at “La Shell,” and I rode into town with Don Alberto. When I had to catch early morning buses to Managua, Don Alberto was always the guy that gave me a ride out to the highway. He was often the guy that gave me a ride back into town upon my return too, so it wasn’t rare for Don Alberto to play the role of last goodbye and first hello in Palacaguina. And he played the role very well, always offering me a warm welcome back to my town. He’d ask how my trip was and where I went. He’d joke, calling me a “vago,” or drifter, but then retract and acknowledge the importance of getting away and travelling, even if he couldn’t do much travelling himself. Don Alberto, though I only knew him in the short five minute rides in and out of town, had a unique ability to always make me feel like I was missed during my time away. After my long trip back from Costa Rica, it was especially nice to spend the final five minutes of my 13 hour trip with a guy that seemed like an old friend.

When I finally got into my house, I threw my bags down, unpacked, and cleaned up a bit before slipping into bed. In that moment, safe and sound in my own home, such pride and confidence! I had started my morning in San Jose; 13 hours, three buses, three cabs, two capitals, one border, and one bribe later I was safely home. And I did it, the trip, the negotiations, the talking, the directing, all with surprising ease, with the grace of an old veteran. Central America was no longer the intimidating, ass kicking force it had been for more than a year. It was home and I knew it intimately. Swearing with the most foul mouthed Nicas and joking with the most common phrases, I knew the language, and the prices of taxis and schedules of buses were all conveniently memorized for quick recollection when I needed them most. I knew how to eat the food and how to navigate chaotic borders and the confusing streets of Managua . I knew that after a long trip from San Jose to Palacaguina, Don Alberto would patiently wait at "La Shell," greeting me warmly to welcome me HOME. Covered safely by a mosquito net, I lay in my bed thinking about all of this, and with these thoughts, came an exciting feeling of the world's possibility. I could go anywhere and do anything, learn and understand a country or region, and build a home and a sense of place in cities and countries very foreign to my own. The world felt bigger...large and hopeful.

And I revisit this thought as I board the #22 bus on my way to work. My commute is easy, nicely labeled with maps and signs directing the passengers, and it's convenience and routine can dangerously start to feel like boredom, a boredom that can very quickly make the world seem small. So I keep the memory of that day and that feeling of confidence, that sense of place, earned the hard way after conquering a foreign land, and that hopeful thought of a large world safely lodged in my immediate conscious. I do not want to file it away, to place it in a subconscious purgatory that begins to fade my recollection. I recall it on my way to work, fighting the boredom of my comfortable routine, and the world again begins to expand, beyond the calm borders of Chicago. I’m ready to explore.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Flint Town!

It's funny how an article, in its first sentence, can remind you of a 27% unemployment rate, yet still leave you feeling inspired. Thanks for the link, Matt.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I wasn't joking

National Georgraphic Traveler named the U.P. drive one of the world's greatest scenic routes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

...Look About You

Growing up driving on streets named Dort and Crapo, visiting museums named Sloan, passing a hotel named Durant and a mansion named Mott, I learned from an early age that Michigan meant autos. And this definition has made it especially painful, in the last few years, to drive around Flint and notice the weeds that spring from the asphalt of the deserted concrete islands that used to hold Buick City, Chevy in the Hole, and Flint East. Because if Michigan is autos, these decaying, blighted, swaths of emptiness cruelly remind me that my town is dead, her industry gone, and my state finished. But what I learned on a recent trip through the Upper Peninsula is that my childhood belief that Michigan means autos is both shortsighted and ill fitting.

Driving through copper country, I was reminded that in 1841, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the site of the nation’s first copper boom and by 1869 the state was producing more than 95% of the nation’s copper. In the U.P. I learned that long before the auto industry was born, the Quincy Copper Mine near Hancock had already earned the nickname “Old Reliable” after paying out a dividend to its investors for 32 years. And while Old Reliable worked, Michigan’s booming lumber industry produced more lumber than the next three states combined. So to believe that Michigan is autos is to forget that it was also once lumber and copper. Michigan has been defined by industry before, and my state has watched these “reliable” industries come and go. Lumber gone. Copper gone. Autos dying. We’ve been here before, and the reminder that Michigan still remains after experiencing the death of defining industries was comforting. But what I found more comforting, and what this drive illustrated best, was understanding why equating Michigan with any industry is so stupidly unjust.

Because when the rocky, undeveloped coast of Lake Superior favorably compared to Maine’s Acadia National Park, and when the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offered sandstone cliffs rising from water that shares the blue and green colors of the Caribbean, and when I stood 700 feet above the world’s largest freshwater lake taking in a view that I had thought was reserved for California’s PCH, I learned that Michigan has always been much more than copper, lumber, or cars. I learned, after looking out over the cold, blue waters of Lake Superior and smelling the pines of Tahquamenon, that Michigan’s strength does not come from industry, but from her natural beauty.

So though it’s easy to believe, driving around Flint, that my state is dying, I now know that Michigan is much stronger than autos. No, Michigan cannot be equated with any industry. Because when the copper industry and lumber industry died, Michigan still lived; and when the auto industry does indeed die, she will still stand, strengthened and always defined by her natural splendor. Michigan is not dead. She is beautiful, and beauty is permanent.



Thursday, July 16, 2009

Walter

It was the standard collegiate tshirt, navy blue with “Michigan” written in bright block maize letters across the front. And since “where in the states are you from” came immediately after “what’s your name,” “how many brothers and sisters do you have,” and “how much money do you make” in the horribly predictable Nicaraguan meet-and-greet conversation, everyone knew what my tshirt meant. Michigan was Daveed’s pueblo, and when I wore that shirt around town people would read it aloud. Meecheegan. So it was always a good day when I wore my pueblo around town, and it was a great day when I wore it on a Sunday afternoon during my second year of service.

Walter and I had become, for lack of a better term, drinking buddies. Though it only happened three or four times, our routine was as predictable as the meet-and-greet conversations I had with countless Nicaraguans. He’d see me walking through town, catch up to me in his car, and invite me out for a drink. Swooning over a private car and the thought of alcohol, I’d quickly oblige and hop in. We’d swing over to the local gas station to buy a six pack of Toña cans before driving around town and picking up a few more of his friends. Three grown men in the back and two in the front of his green Hyundai Excel, we’d pound the first couple of beers while on our way out of to Bar Titanic along the Panamericano. At the bar, we’d switch over to rum and coke and waste the day talking about Nicaraguan politics and how, no, I couldn’t easily get them a visa. The one drink he invited me out for always turned into several drinks, and by the time he’d drop me off at home, it’d take all my concentration to lock my doors, neatly tuck in my mosquito net, and pass out. I’d wake up the following morning with a headache.

The Sunday I was wearing my Michigan tshirt was no different. I was on my way to visit Maria’s family when the green Hyundai pulled along side me and offered a drink. Two hours later I was a few drinks deep sitting at Bar Titanic listening to my compañeros sing along to Mexican Ranchera music. And in the middle of Javier Solis’ ballad, Walter finished off his rum and coke, threw his hands up and screamed “Vivaaa…MEEEEEcheeeegaaan!” He looked directly at me when he said it and finished off his proud exclamation with a hearty laugh, gazing around at all of us for approval. I responded by grabbing the letters of my shirt to flip the sides out aggressively (think LeBron James grabbing the sides of his jersey after a thunderous dunk) and, nodding my head, said “Meecheegan!!!”

We stayed at Bar Titanic all day drinking an unhealthy amount of alcohol. After every drink, Walter would raise his hands and salute my home state with his rallying cry, laughing each time as if it was the first time he said it. By the third or fourth drink, all of us had enough liquid courage to join in and help him finish off the salute. By the fifth and sixth, we all knew to start watching for the last sip when the ice in the glass melted, and we joined in right from the beginning. Viva! MEEEcheeegan! By the seventh and eighth, we didn’t have to wait for Walter. When the spirit moved you, you’d put your drink down and raise your arms. Your compañeros would follow suit and we’d cry together, "Vivaaaa……MEEEEEEEEcheeegaaaaan!!”

I woke up the next morning with a hangover, and in an attempt to “work it off” I walked out to my backyard and started doing laundry, scrubbing my tshirts on a concrete slab. When I came to the Michigan tshirt, I was more gentle than normal. I only gave it a couple of scrubs along the concrete and only slightly ringed out the excess water. Instead of hanging it in the direct sunlight, I found a premium spot under the shade of my mango tree. That was my ranchera rallying cry I was holding. It was my pueblo I was guarding. I had to be gentle and caring. I couldn’t let those colors fade. I thanked Walter under my breath, went inside and slept off my hangover.

Viva Michigan!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Peace Corps Expansion Act

Maybe boring for most, but a good history of the origins of the Peace Corps and certainly worth watching for fellow RPCVs.





Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Diego

Amongst my friends, Victor Victor comes up at least once every two weeks. His absurd name and obnoxious questions I described here, reserved a place for him in friends speak lexicon. Which is a shame because I didn’t like the guy and I spent less than one full day with him during the entire two years. He was nothing more than an extra. I’d much rather spend time talking about the people I enjoyed and actually knew at the end of two years. So, I’m going to try to introduce a few more characters. And although you might think otherwise after reading this post, at some point I’ll write about someone older than ten years old.
____________________

I met Diego while walking through town to the main bus stop. He ran up from behind and yelled “Oy, chele!” (hey whitie!) and offered to shine my shoes. Over his small shoulder he was lugging the typical wooden box the shoe shine boys used to carry their brushes and polish as they ran around town looking for work: dusty cowboy boots and leather shoes. He was about eight years old and had a cocky strut. His hands, face, and tank top were smudged and, in some places, nearly covered with shoe polish. He wasn’t wearing shoes. I declined his offer because I was headed to teach a class, but I told him to stop by my house the following day. “You go to school in the morning?” I asked. “Yeah. In the morning.” “Come by tomorrow afternoon then.”

He showed up the next morning. “Didn’t you say you go to school in the morning?” “School was canceled today,” he told me. I didn’t believe him, but before I could question him much further he was fast at work. Bent over his wooden box polishing my shoes, he had a quick rhythm. Two fingers into the polish, rub the shoe, two fingers into the polish, rub the shoe, grab the brush, brush the shoe. Repeat. He was wearing an old blue hat with the Valvoline logo on the front. It was set to the smallest size, and he wore it with the brim pushed way up over his forehead. While he was working the hat would slowly creep downward until it reached his eyes and he had to push it back up. He worked this movement into his rhythm. Grab the brush, push the hat up, brush the shoe. Repeat. “I like your hat,” I said. He kept polishing and asked what the logo meant. “It’s a brand of oil for cars. I have a blue tshirt that has the same logo on it.” He stopped polishing and looked up with wide eyes. “Really,” he skeptically said.

My Valvoline tshirt was one of my favorites. I had bought it at the Flint Goodwill a few years ago and wore it a lot around the house and to the gym. It had the three qualities I looked for in a good tshirt: a good fit; a comfortable, worn in fabric; and a perfectly sized neck - not too tight, not too big. While Diego was finishing up my shoes, I went back to my room and fished the shirt out from the wooden shelves I had made to hold my clothes.

I unfolded the shirt and showed him. His eyebrows went up and the whites of his wide eyes and glowing smile painted a stark contrast to his dusty, shoe polish smudged face. He couldn’t believe that my tshirt had the same logo as his hat. He got closer to the shirt and studied the logo before yanking the hat off his head and holding the two together. “They are same! The hat and shirt are even the same color! Tuani,” he said. Cool.

He finished up my shoes, and I overpaid him. As he was leaving I asked if his feet hurt from running around barefoot. He looked back over his shoulder at me like I was crazy and let out a half laugh. No, he scoffed. I’ve never felt less tough. He hurried away looking for his next customer.

-----

Diego was in the unfortunate group of kids that had to work to help support their families. Since there was a morning and afternoon session of classes at the elementary and high schools, these kids could theoretically attend school for half the day and work for the other half. It rarely played out so nicely though. It was my experience, as well as the experience of several elementary school teachers I asked, that these working kids came to school only sporadically, if at all. Presumably, they only made it to class when their family had enough money to eat. I had a hunch that Diego wasn’t attending any classes until I saw him one day in his school uniform. Blue pants, white shirt, and black shoes. Besides for a missing button on his shirt and a small hole in the top of his right shoe, he could have passed for an elementary school student in the States. I wished that he could wear that uniform everyday. He waved when I passed.

-------

He continued to show up at my house once every few weeks during my two years, and the visit never changed. He’d polish my shoes and then ask to see the tshirt. To Diego's unbelieving mind, comparing the tshirt and hat never got old. When he had once again assured himself that the two logos were indeed the same, he’d reveal his white teeth with a bright smile, return his hat to the top of his head, pack up his things, and take off. On his way out, I’d always ask “Why aren’t you in school today?” I go in the morning or I go in the afternoon or classes were canceled or I didn’t feel like it today. His reply was quick, said as he was turning his back and hurrying away to find his next customer.

------

I spent most of my last week in town, tracking people down to say goodbye and leave them with some insignificant possession I had promised them. A Frisbee, a baseball, a school notebook, a backpack, a deck of cards. That whole week I kept my Valvoline shirt in the bag I carried around town. I was excited to run into Diego to give him the shirt. It’d be too big for him, but so was his hat. He’d be a Valvoline sponsored nine year old shoe polisher. I couldn’t wait to see his reaction. His wide eyes and blinding smile. His high five.

I never found him. I tell myself that he was no longer roaming the streets looking for dusty cowboy boots and leather shoes. I imagine he turned in his shoe polish and brush for a notebook and pencil. It’s easiest to deal with poverty when I pretend it doesn’t exist. When I convince myself that I couldn’t find him because he was in school. He was doing homework. He was a student. My Valvoline shirt isn’t fit for a student anyway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sergio

When I was living with his family for the first two months in Palacaguina, Sergio and I would eat dinner together. There was a small, wooden table that sat in the central patio of the house and we’d sit on either end of the table facing each other. Everyone else that lived in the house would serve themselves and eat sitting in a chair or along a bench, but Sergio and I were always seated and served at the table. Oftentimes, the family would even set the table with a tablecloth and a white cloth placemat outlined with doily-esque gold designs. I received nothing but the best hospitality. His mother or grandmother would serve us. A fork, a plate of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and a plastic, Winnie the Pooh plate with two tortillas for me. A spoon, a bowl of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and half a tortilla on top for Sergio Luis. After one meal about two weeks into my stay with his family, I finished my meal, put my fork down, and looked at Sergio Luis. He was still finishing up his tortilla. I smiled and said, “I beat you.” He quickly finished his tortilla but didn’t say a word.

The following night, we again ate dinner together. A fork, plate of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and a plastic, Winnie the Pooh plate with two tortillas for me. A spoon, a bowl of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and half a tortilla on top for Sergio Luis. I ate my meal normally but watched horrified as Sergio lifted his bowl to his mouth, slightly tilted his head back, and shoveled the food into his mouth. It wasn’t pretty and a lot of the food ended up on the table and down his shirt but it was very efficient. He didn’t say a word during the meal until he slammed the bowl down onto the table, raised his arms, and screamed “I beat you!” I struggled to keep from laughing and when I had composed myself, I calmly said “You beat me because I do not eat like a dog. You shouldn’t either.” At that moment, smiling at a four year old boy covered in food, I realized I had a student that was paying close attention.

I had come to Nicaragua to teach a high school business course, but truthfully I was never very good at teaching at the high school. I was just never great at teaching a group of 50 teenagers. I struggled to get them focused. I hated dealing with discipline problems. I had few resources besides a blackboard. I had no formal teaching experience and was easily frustrated or overwhelmed. Even after classes that went particularly well, my momentary high of a job well done was coupled with an exhaustive feeling of “I can’t do this tomorrow.”

Teaching smaller groups or individuals was a better fit. It allowed for more interaction; it was less overwhelming and more rewarding. It was possible to change activities quickly and easily within a small group. But most of all it was simply less formal. In smaller groups, I was seen more as a facilitator than a teacher. Students were more willing to ask or answer questions and have fun when I was seen as a friend and not a teacher. And the most informal and enjoyable teaching I did was with Sergio Louis.

We started with colors. Blue, green, red, yellow, orange. I’d buy two small packs of candy and reveal the bags to a delighted, squealing Sergio. The pieces of candy were similar in size to Skittles, though not as tasty. I’d fish one small piece from the bag and ask Sergio to name the color of the candy. If he got it right, he got to eat it. If he got it wrong, I got to eat it. It was, perhaps, a cruel way to teach a four year old the standard colors of the world, but Sergio was a quick learner. The first time he named every color correctly he danced with joy. Blue, green, red, yellow, orange.

We didn’t stop with colors though. Over the course of two years, I helped Sergio learn how to write, how to tie shoes, how to swim, how to eat ice cream, how to sing Hail! To The Victors, how to whistle, how to apologize. He posed curious questions like “Why don’t you have earlobes?” and learned that everyone is different. He jealously asked “Why don’t I have a beard” and learned that children can’t grow beards. Our class time was informal, spent swinging in a hammock or hiding from the piercing sun under a tree, but the learning was serious and quick. And it was unusually enjoyable.

After a long day of struggling to get all my students focused on vocabulary, formulas, and homework assignments, it was always refreshing to return to Sergio’s curiosity. He soaked up, as fact, anything I threw his way. I didn’t have to struggle to get his attention, and rather than wasting time trying to teach percentages I could focus on teaching what was really important. Like how to appropriately greet me.

We’d start with closed fists. I’d bring my fist down, knocking his fist, and as if it were a direct result of my blow, his small fist would swoop above mine and come crashing down to knock my fist. This happened rapidly, and without hesitation we’d finish off the two initial knocks with a standard fist bump. There was some confusion when we were first learning, but when I started to call out the steps “Mine! Yours! Middle!” he was an old pro within days. Like any good teacher who senses his students are ready for more, I introduced a more challenging handshake; one that can be best described as the Eight Mile greeting.

We’d shake hands normally, pivot our wrists around grasped thumbs, shake while grasping each others' thumbs, slide our hands away, grip our fingertips together, pull and snap our hands back and finish with a snap of our fingers. The Eight Mile greeting proved to have a lot of steps where a beginner could get lost or confused, but we broke it down into manageable parts and practiced diligently. With time we perfected each step and slowly put them all together for the full greeting.

The final step was an easy one. We combined the fist bumps and Eight Mile shake into one, long, beautifully choreographed, impressive greeting. I’d enter the house and without word Sergio would hold his fist out giving me the queue to bring my fist down on his to start the fluid chain reaction of moving fists, hands, and fingers. After the final snap of our fingers, we’d casually move along with our conversation as if nothing extraordinary had just happened. As if we didn’t notice the jealous looks from our audience. As if a four year old and a twenty five year old hadn’t just greeted each other with an elaborate secret handshake.

After mastering the handshake, it was clear: we were an awesome teacher/pupil tandem. As a team, I could teach him anything and he could learn everything. Spending time with Sergio was the most enjoyable and successful teaching I did in Nicaragua.

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On my last day in Palacaguina, I went over to Sergio Luis’ house and we greeted each other with our handshake. He sat on my lap and I explained to him that I was leaving the following day. He asked why I couldn’t stay. Why are you leaving? Why can’t I go with you to the United States? And as I struggled to come up with replies, Sergio and I learned that we had our limits. The awesome pair was fallible. We learned that I couldn’t teach him things that I didn’t quite understand myself. We sat down to dinner that night and I worried –as any teacher does – that Sergio wouldn’t remember anything I taught him. That in a few short months he wouldn’t even remember his teacher. Consumed in thought, I looked up and noticed Sergio’s side grin from behind the bowl he was holding up to his mouth. He slammed the bowl down, raised his arms, and said “I beat you.” I smiled. He’d remember.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Viva Nicaragua!

For those of you who haven't seen the newest NBA commercials:



For those of you who haven't seen a Nicaraguan fiesta:

video

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Chamorro Family

This is an excellent article on recent Nicaraguan history told through the lens of one of the country's most famous families. If you like the article and are interested in learning more about Nicaragua, or are just looking for a good book, I'd suggest Stephen Kinzer's Blood of Brothers.

The only critique I have of the article is when in the second to last paragraph, the author describes the Chamorro neighborhood as "middle-class." I can assure you that anyone in Nicaragua dining on seafood paella and living in a "sprawling four bedroom" is much wealthier than "middle-class," and it's a disservice to the country to describe the neighborhood as such when my friends and the majority of the country struggle to get by on less than $2/day.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Go Blue!

I probably won't be winning any tournament pools this year.



Monday, March 02, 2009

Bizarre Foods

Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern was in Nicaragua a couple of weeks ago filming an episode for his show. I hope/wonder if he got giardia.

Once you get over the fear of parasites, I agree with Zimmern. The best way to understand a new country is by sharing a local meal with its people. And if you can help prepare it, even better.




Buen provecho!

Nicaraguan Vampires

I'm glad I didn't read this article while I was living in Nicaragua. My "shanty" had "gaps big enough for the flying mammals to sneak through during the night," and sneak through they did. Ten minutes after my lights would go off, I'd hear my visitor swoop in and fly around. But I thankfully had a mosquito net and besides the droppings I cleaned up every morning, the bats in my house weren't too much of a bother.

The night before this picture was taken, however, was a bit less comfortable (check out the bat hanging above me). I had to sleep with my sleeping bag over my head and awoke several times through the night when the bat would fly so close I could feel it's wings hit me. There's a lot of things I don't miss about Nicaragua.



The standard Nicaraguan technique for getting rid of bats involved wrapping a clove a garlic in a red cloth and hanging the cloth from the roof. I was also told to smash garlic into the roof in the form of a cross. Neither of these worked. Go figure.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

"No reason only the poor should experience this."

This is cool and presumably much more effective than a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. Then again, a lot is more effective than PowerPoint when trying to explain poverty to rich people. Like experiencing this and living for two years here:


Also know that when US taxpayers send Peace Corps volunteers to countries with malaria and dengue fever, we provide them with mosquito nets and preventative drugs to defend against these diseases. As a Peace Corps volunteer sleeping under a US government provided mosquito net, why was my life more valuable than the 2000 African kids that died from malaria yesterday? Donate a net.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

And you thought Illinois was bad

A good run down on the ridiculousness of Nicaragua's corruption, specifically "El Pacto." Living there for two years really made me appreciate our government. Warts and all.

Translating "el gordo," Aleman's nickname, into its English equivalent makes me laugh. Fat Man.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Flickr Pics

For those interested, I've finally posted my pictures from this past summer, my last few months in Nicaragua, and Brian's wedding.

You can find them on my Flickr page. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Bored?

"Are you bored yet?" My boss has asked me this a couple of times since I started working here about a month ago. I normally just politely respond with something like "No. It's all new to me, so it's fun learning how everything works." That's essentially the truth, I am enjoying learning something new, but I might give her the whole truth the next time she asks. It'd go something like this:

Bored?!? I woke up today and took a hot shower. That shower and the anticipation of tomorrow's is enough excitement to get me through any long, boring day without too much pain. And now I'm sitting here at a computer hooked up to high speed internet, contemplating what kind of coffee I'm going to drink today. You know that big coffee machine in the kitchen? The one that has at least 20 different flavors, each individually wrapped so that I can put the envelope in, push a button and have a hot cup of coffee within 20 seconds. Yeah, that's pretty cool too and I'm still not quite over the joy of pushing that button every morning. Besides, I still have 15 flavors to try. How can I be bored when within the next few weeks I plan on trying the MilkyWay cappuccino?

Bored? Ha! I've just finished my cup of coffee and now get to work while deciding where to eat lunch. Should I walk across the street and have something in the food court? Taco Bell, Arby's, Sbarro, Panda Express? Or maybe I'll be a little braver and venture two more blocks to Chiptole. Or maybe I'll just gamble and let the next food advertisement I see decide where I go. It will, undoubtedly, be available within a 20 minute walk of my office. Just saying that is fun and exciting.

Urgh. I've finished my trash meal and feel tired and unmotivated. I might even be a little borrr....but that's before I remember that after work I'm hanging out with friends. We'll probably do something fairly low key, relax and watch TV. Nothing too exciting unless your nights over the last two years have mostly been spent alone, under a mosquito net, with a book and an 8pm bedtime. With that in mind, copying and pasting an hour more isn't bad at all. And I'll do anything without complaint or boredom, with headphones and Pandora. Bored? Really?

Boredom is relative, and I think it's very hard to be bored in the first world (including sterile office environments) when you've experienced the boredom of rereading 7 month old Newsweeks in the third world. So until my boss takes my computer away, puts me in a rocking chair, cranks the heat up to 90 degrees, and asks me to stare at the wall, my answer will continue to be "no, I'm not bored yet." Not even close.