Choices, Choices

18 Jun

My youngest sister was born when I was 12-years-old.  It was a rainy February day that I remember with striking clarity.  My parents sent the rest of us to school that morning, despite my mother’s induction, and I could barely focus on my studies.  By the end of the day, though, I had a warm baby to hold and snuggle.  It was love at first sight.

She’s a beautiful 19-year-old college student now.  Although two inches taller than me, I like to think she looks up to me in some ways.  I’m old enough to be respected, but not so much older that I’m parental.

Ok.  I’m parental, but I’m fine with that.

There are things I want for her.  I want her to live away from home to develop a sense of independence.  I would like her to finish school before pursuing her relationship and family goals.  I would love to see her travel and learn more about this big world of ours.  I want her to expand her mind.  That’s not too much to ask, is it?  I consider this the average “middle-class fantasy.”

One of CdA’s students is a similar age.  She is sweet, loving, and funny – – a delightful woman, overall.  She manages to stay in university and earn good grades, while her home life deteriorates beyond her control.  If she was my sister, I would tell her to find a friend to live with, to come stay with me, or to get a small apartment close to school.

Those in poverty don’t have those sort of choices, though.  When people do stick together, blood ties completely outweigh friendships.  Translated, this means our student has two real scenarios to choose from: remain in her familial home, or get married and move into the home of her husband.  Neither of these are particularly ideal choices, but what else can she do?

In these situations, I try to think about what decision I would make.  I’d love to think that I could find a way to manuever around the constructs of poverty, but that isn’t realistic.  I’m resourceful, but you can only be resourceful when you have resources.  Not in Jinotega, that’s for sure.  I’d like to say I would make some drastic move, but global thinking doesn’t happen when you worry about your day-to-day existence.  How could you even make a move without an income?

When it comes down to it, ‘choice’ is perhaps the biggest factor I see separating those in the ‘developing world’ from those of us in better circumstances.  As a single, educated, and (thus far) child-less woman in the U.S., I have infinitely more choices than even the most successful of our students.  It’s important for CdA to continue to improve the choices in Jinotega, so that our girls can continue to improve their lives and the lives of the generations they will mother.  I think we’re doing a pretty darn good job of it so far.

As for our student, I feel she will make the right decision for her and that she will lead a happy, fruitful life.  :-)

Still Processing

14 Jun

It’s been weeks since I returned from Nicaragua.

A few days back, though, a co-worker asked me a question and, instead of answering with “yes,” I quickly, and unexpectedly, said, “si.”  After laughing, embarrassed, I told her about the memory I had been recalling when she spoke.

I was thinking of Nancy’s three girls with whom I managed to communicate with for a short while one afternoon when their madrina was resting.  They knew a few words of English, and I was able to teach them new vocabulary words with my limited Spanish.  It was such a sweet conversation in which these little ones and I learned something from each other.  There were a lot of giggles and it was absolutely delightful.

To be dreadfully honest, however, it took a while for the pleasant, happy memories to overshadow the overwhelming sense of excess I felt when I came back to the States.  I hadn’t planned on discussing this, as I felt it was somehow too personal: I cried off-and-on for nearly 24 hours once I got home.

I’ve spoken with a variety of people who have had similar experiences, so I know it’s normal.  The thing is … you start to question your position in the world and why there is such a dichotomy of wealth.  How is it that so many people in the ‘developed world’ suffer from depression and anxiety when we have clean water, flushing toilets, roofs over our heads, and food in our bellies?  It just doesn’t make sense.

My problems seem so much smaller now that I’ve seen how our girls live, and I can assure you I appreciate all that I have with renewed sense of vigor.  While I am glad the tears are gone, I’m deeply grateful for a more meaningful sense of compassion for our students.

Abstractions

7 May

We managed to find our way back to the States and I’m finally home.  Mojo, my Chihuahua, won’t stop licking me and my family is happy I have returned.  While ecstatic to see everyone and to be surrounded by my own things, my sense of melancholy is worse.

Prior to my visit to Jinotega, my many hours of volunteer work was already tremendously fulfilling — but now CdA is real to me.  I’ve laughed with the employees, I’ve played with our students, and I’ve walked the streets of the community we serve.  I have been in the homes of the very girls I hope will finish their educations.  In short: the abstraction of who I work for is gone.

In many ways, poverty is a foreign concept for those of us in the U.S.  Don’t get me wrong — I know there is great poverty here.  I’ve seen it both at home in Southern California and in other parts of the country.  I’ve studied poverty, as well — my two degrees in sociology offering plenty of statistics on the problem.  Often, however, poverty in the States is often offset by surrounding affluence.  When the majority of a community is middle-class, it’s harder to connect with those who fall below it.  What’s most sad — we often hide the impoverished from view and blame them for their plight.

In Jinotega, though, the poverty is overwhelming — certainly greater than I could have imagined.  Around every corner there are homes partially constructed with scraps of cardboard and rusted metal.  Dirt floors.  Termites, a very serious problem in the tropics, destroy every inch of wood with a sick sense of urgency.  Large families live in tiny shacks and have minimal amounts of food, often eating only rice and beans for months.  Sometimes is just rice.  Some don’t have toilet facilities and defecate in their yards.  The list goes on.

I think of my time as a student and consider the contrast between my life and that of the young women in CdA’s program.  We (those of us who run CdA) constantly wonder what more we should require of our kids, but you’ve got to wonder … how can students study in this environment?  How can our organization expect students to do well in class and maintain good grades?

The scarier question is: what happens if we don’t?

When it comes down to it, CdA may be the only driving force these girls have to continue in school.  When you spend your days considering where your next meal with come from, the importance of literacy and education tend to be lost.  I can’t help but feel that “big picture thinking” is for those of us with full bellies.

Ugh.

The Hex

6 May

Have I mentioned the nickname of the hotel we’re staying it?  They condensed the full title, “Hotel Express,” to “Hex.”  The term is on everything – the front doors, the drinking glasses in our rooms — everything.  Nancy and I smirk constantly, wondering if they had researched the term in English, given their hopes of attracting Americans.  This wouldn’t be the best place for a superstitious person to stay.  Otherwise, it’s a rather nice hotel.  (Thank the stars for air-conditioning!!!)

Sunday we headed to Granada, perhaps the most “touristy” area of Nicaragua.  An hour away from Managua, we saw plenty of Nica asphalt – the highways are actually fairly impressive and safe.  We arrived and promptly decided lunch was in order.  Because of the tourism, you find a much wider selection of, well, everything.  We certainly did not lack for choices of restaurants.  Finally, a meal without rice or beans!  (In fact, we had the most delicious crepes I’ve ever had — and I’ve had a crepe or two!)

To be honest, at this point, Nancy and I are running on fumes.  I’m still melancholy, having left Jinotega, and we both really, really want to rest.  While we did walk around Granada a bit (photos below), we had to finish up a few things in Masaya before heading back to the hotel.  We said our goodbyes (and many, many thanks) to Raul, then headed to the “mall” next door for dinner.  Tacos (or something called tacos) came with our “Asian” food.  It was less-than-stellar, but it satiated the hunger.  I was surprised to see American prices as we window-shopped.  This is where the burgeoning Nicaraguan middle-class comes to do their shopping.  Unlike home, this may be the only mall in the country.

Nancy had commented during our time in Jinotega that this trip makes her feel like she’s in another world — time seems to stand still and fly by.  I agree.  “Time to go back to the real world,” she says.

“Do we have to?” I respond.

Sigh.

We both decide early to bed is the best bet, as we have to be at the airport by 4am.

Nica Time

5 May

The title of this post is something of a ‘broma’ (joke).  You see, Nicaragua runs on it’s own time.  If you want to get somewhere by 8am, no Nicaraguan will expect you before 10am.  This morning, it’s us Americans on Nicaraguan time, not the actual Nicaraguans that surround us.  Raul arrived on time to pick us up.  Ruth and Fany were on time to say goodbye.  Nancy and I were still running around.

I believe it was closer to 10am before we set off for Managua.  I told Ruth to be a good girl (it’s her birthday today!) and she assured me she would by giving me a tickle.  I thanked Fany for making us feel at home and for her constant work to make Jinotega a better place.

I honestly don’t remember much about the two and a half hour drive back to Managua.  I know we stopped to get snacks and bottles of water.  I was pretty melancholy — it’s hard to depart someplace you know needs your help and skills.  I kept thinking, “Why am I leaving?”  Sigh.

Because we arrived at noon and were too early to check in to the hotel, Raul kindly offered to store our luggage at his (lovely) home before we headed to Masaya.  After unloading our stuff and changing to a more comfortable car (read: something with A/C), we were off again to shop.  Yes, more shopping.  I still had work to do for CdA in this arena and Nancy had a few cordabas burning a hole in her pocket.

There are two markets in Masaya – one for tourists, another for non-tourists.  They have the same stuff, but one is more expensive — can you guess which?  We would go to each several times in the next two days, but I would find most success in the non-tourist market.

And you know what?  Nancy nor I would manage to take a single photo of either market.  Apparently there is a ‘no photo’ vortex in Masaya.  Hmmm.  I have attached some photos of a volcanic crater we stopped at — so, so pretty!

Final Day

4 May

Friday — my last day in Jinotega.

In reviewing my writings, it’s dawned on me that I have failed to mention my own student.  I don’t actually fund her scholarship, but her sponsor passed away last year (leaving money for her to complete school) and I decided that it was a good idea to correspond with one of our students.  Her name is Heyling and she is a nursing student at the university.  Despite the few years difference between us, she still called me “madrina,” and, boy did it make me feel old!  Overall, she was a lovely woman with an adorable son, who decided I couldn’t possibly be loved.

“What?!” you may exclaim.  I know, right?  Kids love me.

Nope, not Alex.

I would see them no less than 5 times and he would despise me until the end.  I managed to take just one decent photo of him and it was during the excitement of his father arriving home.  In the eleventh hour, however, Alex would find the good in me … or, at the very least, the good in the small toy I gave him.  I finally got my hug — without coercion, even.  *warm fuzzies*

Friday was spent away from the community center.  You see, I decided immediately upon arrival in Jinotega that Nancy and I should throw a small party at the end of our stay.  Nancy, being ever agreeable, thought it sounded like a good idea.  Unfortunately for Andrea, it meant giving her loads of work to do on our last day in town.  Deciding we would have approximately 20 people, Andrea needed a day off from caring for us to, you know, put together my fiesta.  It just so happened that Nancy wanted to take her girls to the carnival and then out for lunch.

The carnival would again prove to be a great time.  Nancy told each of them that they could buy one thing after perusing all the options, figuring that they would want toys.  Turns out, the girls wanted to be just like Nancy.  Most of the trip, Nancy could be found in sunglasses and a straw hat.  Guess what the girls wanted.  Yup.  Hats.  We maneuvered back through the stalls, then found one place that had a hat they each liked.  The same guy also had a whole bunch of sunglasses for sale, and Nancy decided to buy hats and sunglasses for each of them.  Too cute!

Lunch was at a restaurant in downtown – $5 for all the trimmings, including a beer, if you are so inclined.  (Today, we decided to join the girls in a juice.)  It was hard to tell if they had ever been to a nice restaurant because they were still so excited over the hats and glasses.  Because each one of them wanted a different thing, Nancy decided to get them each their own plate.  This would teach us a very, very sad lesson.

You see, when you put a big plate full of food in front of a child that does not often have more than fills her belly, she tries to eat all of it.  Yup, we slowly realized Judy, the 4-year-old, was going to try to pack away the same amount of food as an adult.  Her 11-year-old cousin managed it (and in record time, too), and her 8-year-old sister came close.  Afraid that she would eat herself to the point of getting sick, I took away her plate.  Ugh.

Lunch wouldn’t be all sadness.  None of the girls had ever used a knife and fork — who needs them when you really only ever eat rice and beans?  While Judy was too young for learning to cut her own meat, Geovania and Karla would master this skill with gusto!  Good job, ladies!

Finally, everyone gathered at about 6pm – we invited all of CdAs employees, Geovania and her family, Heyling and her son, as well as Ruth, Robbins, and the Peace Corp workers.  I gave a short speech, thanking everyone for their kindness and telling them just how much I enjoyed my trip (I only cried a little), and then the fun began.  It’s traditional in Nica for the youngest participant to get a go at the pinata first.  Alex wasn’t much in the mood, initially, but after seeing Judy take her turn, he gave it a few whacks.  It was Geovania who cracked open this little bear, spilling his  sweets everywhere.  I’ve never seen a group of people jump so quickly!  The candy was scooped up, packed away in little baggies, before I even able to take a shot with my camera.

Everyone had a nice time — we ate dinner, then a had ice-cream for dessert.  Ruth turned on some music and there was dancing.  The staff gave me a lovely gift and I said goodbye to everyone before they headed home.

In the photo, I appear to be holding Ruth’s hand.  I am.  I’m holding it so she can’t tickle me.  She’s as bad as my siblings.

*sigh*  We leave manana.

An Eskimo in Jinotega

3 May

You don’t know happiness until you’ve watched an 8-year-old eat ice-cream for the first time in her life.

Let’s back up here.

Thursday morning was spent attempting the climb to the cross on the hill.  I’m not ashamed to say it: I couldn’t get all the way there.  Apparently I stopped just before the hike became cool and easy.  My rationale was that, if the folks from the Red Cross looked like they were going to pass out, who would save me if I shared the same fate?  Would they bury me where I landed?  Did I mention the cemetery at the bottom of the hill?  Ha!

I think Ruth was the most disappointed, but she has lived with the combination of heat and humidity her entire life.  It was more than I could handle in my all-too-out-of-shape state.  I promised we would successfully make the climb next year — and we will.

Thursday afternoon, we arrived back at the community center to find Geovania, Judy, and Karla waiting to see Nancy.  We decided it would be fun to take them for ice-cream at the Eskimo downtown, where I had gone with Sarah and Ruth just a week prior.  They seemed to know where the shop was, but didn’t appear terribly excited.  I think, perhaps, I’ve noted the heat and humidity to you before, yes?  (cough.)  How could a dairy-loving person in Nicaragua be anything but excited for ice-cream?  Both Nancy and I had noted their muted responses individually, but didn’t say anything to each other.  We would understand in good time.

As we headed into the Eskimo, the girls seemed to perk up and become downright giddy with the idea of ‘choices.’

“What flavor ice-cream do you want?” asked Nancy.

When you live in poverty, you don’t have many choices in your life.  These girls would each have one to make today.

Geovania came back to the table with eyes the size of saucers, a double-scoop in one hand, a spoon in the other.  I was sitting across from her when she took her first bite.  The combination of excitement, thrill, and new-found knowledge on her face was priceless.  She quickly whispered something to her cousin, then took a second, bigger bite.

Life is good.

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