Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Storms, evacuations, disease and vacation

Friday, October 19

As you may have heard (although it is unlikely, as I doubt much news from Central America reaches the USA), Nicaragua has had a bit of rain in the last month or so. First came Hurricane Felix around a month ago. It was predicted to hit Honduras from the Caribbean but slammed into northern Nicaragua and caused a huge amount of damage. There are still thousands of people without homes and drinking water. Entire towns were destroyed. In that part of the country, it is almost completely rainforest and rivers, so there are no roads to wash out, but that also made evacuation very difficult. There are no volunteers in that part of the country, so none of us had to worry about getting out. I hope that that made some international news.

Much more recently, we had a very long and slow tropical depression with about a week of non-stop rain. It didn’t really seem that bad, but as the rains continued and rivers slowly rose bridges started washing out, land started sliding and sections of road started disappearing. We realized that another nice thing about our site is that it is flat and there are no rivers nearby (although in the summer, we would kill for a river to swim in) to flood. Last Friday, the 12th those of us in the Department of Leon were evacuated to the department capital of Leon (kind of confusing that most departments and their capital cities share a name here). Peace Corps has a very planned out and well executed evacuation system and by Friday evening, Brenna and I were a hotel in Leon with about 15 other volunteers. We had some pretty hard rains for the next few days, but kept busy spending time with the other volunteers, playing cards, eating good food, watching TV and taking hot showers. By Monday, the weather seemed to be clearing up and we figured that we would be going back home. We were wrong, as apparently there was another huge storm system that was building and with the ground already saturated, there was a lot of worry that there would be more flooding and more highways washing away. So we stayed and waited. Oh yeah, the hotel has a pool too, so we swam a bit. Finally on Wednesday we were allowed to come back home. We returned to the house just as we left it, although some of our things had started to mold (a few clothes, towels, anything made of leather). I had left a pair of shoes outside to dry (ha ha!) about a week earlier when the rain started, and we returned to one of the shoes with a plant sprouting on it. I’ll put a picture below. As I write this (on Thursday night) there are still a few volunteers from Leon that can’t go back to their sites because they have rivers or are in landslide prone areas. Who knows how long they’ll be there.

Fast forward to October 30…

Since writing the above, we were evacuated again. This time only for 2 nights because of continued rains. So, over the course of 8 days, we spent 2 nights at home and the rest in a hotel in Leon. The poor pets. They missed us a lot.

After spending those 2 days evacuated, my mom, aunt and cousin arrived in Managua to visit us for a week. We spent the first couple days at a very nice resort on the beach in San Juan del Sur, a touristy area on the Pacific very close to the Costa Rican border. There we enjoyed great food, the beach, pools, comfortable beds and of course, the company of family. After indulging ourselves for a few days, we all headed to Malpaisillo so they could see what our lives were really like. The rains had stopped and the sun had come out by the time we returned, making it hot and humid. Of course my Colorado family noticed this much more than we did. Mom, Alyson and McAlyn got to meet a lot of the people we spend time with and they went to one of my schools with me. Next, we went to Granada and relaxed a bit more. While there we also took a guided hike through a cloud forest on the dormant volcano Mombacho. I felt like they enjoyed seeing a forest type that is completely different from anything back home. I’ll put some pics of that below as well. It was really a great week that we spent together. I feel like my family has a slightly better idea of what our life down here is like and it was really nice to spend time with all of them and catch up and give and receive hugs. Thanks again for the visit and also for all of the wonderful American snacks you brought us (Clavo thanks you for the dog treats).

So, during the couple of days that we spent in Malpaisillo with my family, we had been hearing that there were quite a few people being affected by an outbreak of Leptospirosis, which is some sort of bacteria. The PC doctors had warned us that this could happen after the amount of rain that we received (a common health problem after big storms like this is that many people use latrines or “outhouses” here instead of toilets and with too much rain water, those latrines overflow and can easily contaminate drinking water supplies) and to be prepared to start taking antibiotics. Well, after leaving and going to Granada we noticed that Malpaisillo was on the front page of the national newspaper 2 days in a row and was one of the 2 towns nationwide with the highest number of cases of this illness. The last I heard (a couple days ago) 9 people had died nationwide and a couple thousand were affected. The interesting thing about this is that Leptospirosis is easily curable with simple antibiotics. The initial symptoms are fever, nausea and diarrhea, so many people here just assume that they have the flu or a cold and don’t go to the (free) health center. We are in no danger whatsoever here because of our (or, more accurately, the Peace Corps doctors’) knowledge of this sickness and how to cure it. Yet, multiple people have died in our town, schools are closed for at least a week (this seems to be a typical reaction to any sort of headline-making event) and everyone is scared. This is one more example of the amazing level of ignorance that comes with poverty. PC has e-mailed us quite a bit of information about Leptospirosis and almost all of the things that people in town have told me (or I have occasionally read in the paper) have been directly contradicted by our doctors. Life here just continues to amaze me.

As I live here longer and continue to experience more and more, I occasionally find I approach an understanding of why things are the way they are, but generally I just end up more confused and with more questions.

Completely changing topics, we had a meeting today with our town’s Environmental Commission. We have lived here in Malpaisillo for a year now and have been invited to many of these meetings (at least one a month). The problem is that every single time we have gone, only about 5 people have shown up of the 40 or so invited. We then spend about 15 minutes looking at our planners trying to decide when we can actually have the meeting in the following weeks. Oh, and we have to sit around for about an hour and a half before we can do this because generally, no one shows up for anything until at least an hour after it is scheduled to begin. So, this morning we headed out at 9:15 for a meeting scheduled to begin at 8:00 (we’re learning!) completely expecting to get there, wait around for 30 minutes or so, and then plan the next meeting. We sure were surprised when we found about 12 people there and another 6 or 8 came in the following 10 minutes. We actually had a meeting with the Environmental Commission! The project underway at the moment is the planning of the city’s Environmental Plan. There is a large amount of aid money ($175 million) here now in Leon from the US through something called the Millennium Challenge Corporation (they have a webpage outlining their work in Leon, google it) and they have provided funds and a guidebook (and possibly some training, I honestly don’t know much about it) to all of the municipalities to create these 10 step environmental plans. Our job today was to work on steps 4-6 of this plan so we had members of the mayor’s office, NGO’s in town, community leaders, agricultural people and others discussing the environmental challenges our community faces and the potential solutions to deal with those challenges. I can assure you that, unless you are reading this from Nicaragua and are also a PCV, all of this took place in a manner that is very far from how you are imagining something like this taking place. I’ll not go into too much detail for fear that my sarcasm may be seen as being overly negative or offensive. That is the last thing I want. Imagine that on that first day of kindergarten, your teacher never told you about rules, listening, not interrupting, etc., and that every day of the remainder of your school career was like that. Also, your teachers and family members are products of this system and therefore everyone sees it as normal (the funny truth here is that everything I am writing about here is normal for all of them. I am the one here who is the outsider and feels like everything is incredibly abnormal, inefficient, wrong and hopeless. They would likely be thinking the same things if they tried to come and live our lives in the States.). So, by our standards, many folks here don’t act the way we think they should when in group settings like meetings, presentations, classes, etc. It would be considered weird if someone’s cell phone rang and they didn’t answer it (including the presenter). On top of this, the two guys in charge are trying to conform to a set of matrixes and group exercises that were given to them by an outside source, and they have no training in facilitation, education, or working with groups. We were all divided up into 4 groups and given these different charts and matrices to complete, relating to what we saw as the major environmental problems (except that they had already determined the top 4 problems, so we could only work within those 4) of Malpaisillo. We then presented our work to the other groups and moved on to the next task. Six hours later, we parted ways with 3 more steps of this “plan” completed and a tentative exact date for our next meeting. I just wonder if anything at all will come from all of these meetings and the work these people are doing. I have decided that my input in things like this doesn’t really matter and it is really interesting to just observe all that goes on and try to figure out what I can.

Again, I don’t mean any of this to be negative or offensive or anything like that, it is just my perception. And I feel like we always write about really cool stuff that we have done or people who have visited, so maybe I should write more about the things that aren’t happy and fun. Wow, that sounds really depressing, not my intention.

I think this is way too long, so I’ll cut it off now. Enjoy the pictures below, and if you live in CO, we’ll be seeing you soon!!

The typical way to get to and from work.

Mom, Alyson, McAlyn, Brenna and Mason at an overlook on Volcan Mombacho.

Look for the small plant growing out of my shoe.

This is what happens to Birkenstocks during the rainy season. I think there are a few different species of mold there.

Mas and mom on the beach.

Our guide on Volcan Mombacho showing us one of the many types of bromeliads that grow on the trees there.

This butterfly has transparent wings!!

McAlyn standing over a steaming sulfur vent.

This is the fruit of a species of palm called bamboo palm. As you can probably guess, it looks a lot like bamboo.

Brenna and mom on Volcan Mombacho overlooking the isletas in Lake Nicaragua.

Here is our cat, Poster, not really sure if he wants to mess with this beetle. It is HUGE. 3 1/2 inches long, 1 inch high and about 1 1/2 inches wide. And it flies. When we first saw it we thought it was a bat. And yes, that is inside our house.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

October 11, 2007

Mason hard at work measuring trees with his rural school kids. They recently transplanted the trees, and they are doing great with all the rain!

Here we are celebrating our host mom Gloria's 40th birthday!

It's been soo rainy lately! The month of October is the big rain month, and we haven't seen much sun since the month began. This is a picture of the street in front of the house after a big rain. The kids are swimming in the street!

Oops... the same picture again!

This is a cool picture of the big catherdral in the city of Leon.

Here are our neighborhood kids with their band. They just use old car oil bottles and sticks, but they are good! They try to copy all of the official school bands that have been preforming recently for the independence day celebrations.
This is me with my good friend Hogla. We spend a lot of time together cooking for our husbands!

This is just a typical campo house.

Here are two of my cute little fourth grade students at one of my rural schools.

Our town had a hipico celebration, which is a day where all the beautiful well-trained horses of the country come to Malpaisillo to show off and have a competition. The horses are taught to "dance" and they are awarded for the best dancing horse! This guy brought his donkey to the festival and decided to dance on top of him! He eventually fell off.

Here is a shot of the independence day parade. Each school came with their band, and they all congregated in the market for a show of folklore dances and singing.

The high school band with the festival "queen" in the background.

Here's the hipico dancing through the streets!

The Fight of the Year

Last Sunday we were returning home from a nice day at the beach when we came upon a chaotic parade in the streets. We found out it was in honor of St. Jeronimo, the saint of partying, drunkenness and debauchery. As with every Saint honoring parade, they had an image of him sitting on a bed of fake flowers that they were carrying above their heads. Usually the image of the saint is life sized, but this one was smaller then a barbie doll! This procession was also different in that every participant was loud, drunk and dancing. It was sure a sight! We followed them around for a while and eventually made our way home.
We were home for just 5 minutes when the parade of roughly 100 people made its way in front of our house. Right then and there a fight started between two notorious local enemies. Things quickly got out of control and before we knew it, about 4 fights were going on in various places in front of the house. It quickly turned into a mob scene with people running to get away, and even more people running to get in on the action! We watched the whole thing safe from behind the bars of our gate, but it was quite scary. Rocks bigger then my head were the main weapons, and we saw two people get carried away by friends. One pregnant woman got knocked by a rock in the head and had to be taken away in a tricycle taxi. It all died down after about 5 minutes, but it was definitely a scary thing to watch. Ironically, we had a new and impressionable volunteer who is still in training visiting us, and this was his first taste of life outside of his training town!

A Day in the Campo

Yesterday I spent the day visiting my students who attend one of my rural schools. I biked out there in the morning expecting to make some quick house visits and be back by lunch. Little did I know I would receive 4 lunches and make it home at 4:00! I rolled in to my student Keli’s house at around 8:00, and was promptly given a tour of the chickens, goats, ducks horses and cows. The countryside around here is so lush and green right now, and the day was perfect to be outside. We sat and talked with her mom inside her dirt-floor house for a while until we went to visit the teacher next door. I stayed there for an hour or so, talking politics with her husband while we had cuajada, (a local cheese that they make at home. Similar to goat cheese in flavor.) tortilla and sweet coffee. They have a wonderful garden where they grow corn, beans, squash, peppers and melons. We sat there just having a laid-back campo morning looking at the volcanoes in the distance. You may be surprised that I drank coffee, but you must understand that you cannot turn down anything anyone puts in your hand! Luckily it was really milky and not too strong.
After promising the profesora I’d be back for lunch, some kids and I grabbed bikes and took a single-track ride to another student’s home to pay a visit. Once we got there, I was promptly handed a plate of tortilla, cuajada, and another cup of coffee. I obediently ate and drank while everyone watched in silence! As we are sitting in the yard, one of the women of the house began preparing lunch. She grabbed a chicken by the head and with little effort proceeded to twirl it around swiftly. After about 5 turns, the neck was broken so she let it go. It was quite strange to watch a dead chicken running around like mad flapping its wings all over the place! Once that one was good and dead, she simply did the same thing with another one. They then cut off their heads and let the blood trickle down, which the dogs were glad to lick up. When all the blood had drained out, they dipped the headless chickens in boiling water to soften up the skin for plucking the feathers. The feather plucking was surprisingly easy. What struck me as odd were all the other chickens that were clucking around all the fallen feathers trying to eat them! A strange form of cannibalism, if you ask me.
The woman with the chickens brought one over to me so I could see a bite mark on its neck. She said that it had been bitten by a snake the night before, so they decided to kill it. I asked about the snake, and she shrugged it off, saying that her father killed it with a machete and they took it off to the woods. My student’s little brother suggested we go see it, so we took a five minute hike out into the wilds beyond their farm. The kid looked around for a while, and then brought it out. I guess my coffee buzz made me extra jumpy, but when I saw that thing I screamed and ran! I swear I had never seen a snake that big in my life. It was as thick as my leg and when we held it up it was much taller then me. They say it was a boa, and I believe them! It was beautiful, and it was quite sad to see it dead.
After that visit, we went on to four more houses where I was fed again. At around 12:30 we made it back to Keli’s house for lunch! Yes, I somehow stuffed it down. Luckily a chicken stole the tortilla from my lap so I didn’t have to deal with eating that! We sat there for a while until I remembered the lunch I promised I would eat at the profesora’s house! It must have been late afternoon by the time I got there, and they were all in hammocks and sitting around listening to the radio. She promptly served me a heaping bowl of chicken vegetable soup. By some miracle I ate most of it, and then two flies fell in the bowl (another miracle), saving me from having to finish it!
I had a wonderful day out there full of caring, giving and sweet people. They sent me home with tortillas, two heaping bags of cuajada and heaps of homemade candy called cajeta. They are all so simple and kind. Next time I visit I will come prepared with an empty stomach!


Well, the bandages are finally off and the poor thing is hobbling around all over the place. He’s happy and energetic, and the limping doesn’t seem to bother him at all. His leg is definitely a bit deformed, but hey, he survived! When he is standing he only puts weight on his good leg, leaving the other one hanging in the air. People have taken to calling him gay because of how he stands. The kids’ favorite word for gay is gaytorade. I wonder why that one never caught on in the States!