Wednesday, January 07, 2015

some final thoughts

I finished Peace Corps service on July 22nd, and I’ve be staring at this blog post for the last five months- adding a bit here and there and then erasing half of it each time.  I’ve wanted some kind of summation or final thought to look back on service and see what I’ve learned.  Probably due to the breakneck speed at which I jumped back into life in the states, it’s been hard to take some time and reflect and sort through all of the thoughts I have. 

i wasn't sure i could do it
This is my best attempt at summing up the last two years of my life with some of my favorite pictures mixed in.  It's a little long- for the quick summary jump to the last section, but I figure that my grandma and a few aunts are my main audience anyways (Hi Grandma and Aunt Jackie).  I'll probably never be completely happy with it, but this is my best shot.

Nicaragua became my home

For the first year, my mindset was something along the lines of “I’m just visiting.”  I was still close enough to life in the U.S. and what life looked like.  Power outages and crowded buses? “It’s not forever.”  Bucket baths and mosquitoes?  “It’s like camping; eventually I’ll go home.”  While I don’t think that I consciously thought those things very often, that was my underlying thought pared with the frequent- “This is going to be a long time…” 

I’m not sure when it happened but somewhere along the line things changed.  I developed my routines and got to know people in town.  I’d buy eggs from Doña Leyla, my neighbor that ran a small convenience store in the morning.  In the afternoon, I would go buy three bananas from José Angel, a fairly rotund fruit vendor who never really spoke beyond “What do you want?” but he never tried to over charge me, so I supported his business.  I’d wave to people I knew walking through town and stop by Gonzalo’s office.  We’d chat for a while about life and the current status of the business and then one of us would have to leave.  It was my routine.  I knew what was going on and felt like I fit in.

I started running a lot because it was one of the few options for physical activity in town.  People would look at me like I was crazy as I ran by them.  “Don’t you know it’s hot?” or “You’re really sweaty, Aaron” were frequent observations.  I didn’t care.  I found that running helped me decompress and process lots of the frustrations I had.  Maybe I had planned a meeting that no one showed up to, or I walked to school to find out that classes had been canceled.  Any number of reasons- it didn’t really matter. On most afternoons, I would head out for a run along the Panamerican Highway. The sun would usually be setting as I came back into town- bright orange with a deep blue back drop with streaks of red and pink on the clouds with the mountains in the distance.  I loved it. It was absolutely gorgeous.

a bit darker than when i was running, but like this.
I started to think of it as home (sorry mom).  I was living on around $8 a day and scrounged for every córdoba I could find, but it was where I lived, and I loved it.  I took pride when people in town would look at me and say, “You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?”  It was rare to see a chele that suck around for so long because most volunteers come in for a few months max and then ship out again.  It was my home. My place. I always was going to be an outsider, but I was a well-known outsider who belonged.

A few things I learned:

- Living in a different culture is hard. Learning to live with the tension between your own culture and the host culture can be challenging.  I'll give an example- in the states we respect lines.  We know that there is a line and that there is an order to it.  In Nicaragua, lines are more of a flexible concept. There might be a line, but you can kind of just ooze your way in near the front and no one really says anything.  Other times it was just an all out fight to get to the front.  This was especially true when trying to get on the bus to get a seat.  When I first got to site, it drove me nuts that people would be cutting me in line.  Then I realized that lines worked differently there.  By the end I had a whole strategy for navigating lines, especially when it came to getting on the buses.  That’s just one example; there are many more. What we define as “normal” can be complete foreign to a different culture.  Gestures mean different things.  Sayings aren't the same as other countries.  Even if it is a culture with the same language, there still are differences, be it food, drink, or how normal life “just works.” 

- You can teach yourself just about anything using the internet.  I’ve always been fairly tech savvy and when I had about a year left in service I sat down and started to think about the skills I needed or wanted to have by the end of service for when I was applying to jobs.  I felt that Peace Corps provided a good amount of field work experience and some of the soft skills of development, but I wanted to beef up some of the technical skills I had.  Thanks all of the free time I had available (and internet in my house), I was able to do a few online courses and tutorials to learn two programming languages- Python and R.  I would stay up super late working on projects for ideas that I had.  Usually, the idea already existed, but I would make myself figure out how to do it on my own for the learning exercise.  I can confidently say that the skills I learned helped me get the job I have now.
good chance my screen
looked something like this
- I learned how to just be awkward.  We always joke that volunteers are really awkward people.  You just kind of get used to being you and not caring what anyone else things.  After two years of being stared at for the color of your skin, the accent you have, or sitting on someone's porch talking about the weather for the umpteenth time because sometimes that's the only thing you could relate to.  I essentially learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

- I gained direction in my career.  Development work is hard.  This isn't really a profound revelation, and I've reflected on this previously.  In Nicaragua, I saw plenty of NGOs and missionary groups come in with very well intentioned ideas.  Most didn't really stop to ask the community members if it was appropriate or not, and there was minimal community buy in, so they came and dumped buckets of money... to very perceivable little benefit.  I always was interested in monitoring and evaluation, but after this experience I am drawn to it even more.  I want to see projects that are appropriate for local contexts and effective in accomplishing their stated goals.

- Adventure can happen in the US too.  Once I realized that there was a big world outside of the states, I've always wanted to travel elsewhere.  The states just didn't seem as exciting anymore.  I certainly had plenty of adventures in Nicaragua, but I have since being back here too.  Hiking in New Hampshire.  Visiting friends in Colorado.  Even just trying to explore Boston.  It's all an adventure. I'm realizing that there are plenty of places here still left to explore.  Adventure doesn't just happen abroad. 

Through it all, I made incredible friendships

Imagine college buddies but coupled with a much more intense experience.  We shared the highs and lows of living in a different culture for two years and all of the funny and crazy experiences that go  long with it.  We shared those through texts or while watching the gorgeous sunset over the Pacific.

I don't think I would have made it through PC without the friends that were there with me during service.  They were the ones who just understood when things weren't going well or laughed at the ridiculous circumstances we often found ourselves in.  Thanks to the PC family plan, we were able to text each other and call for free.  We may not have been in the same physical place in the country, but we all were there for each other and willing to hop on a bus at a moment's notice to go on an adventure.

I traveled to Denver to celebrate the New Year with those friends.  It was so great to be with them again to reminisce and talk about how we are readjusting to life in the states.  I hope to keep in touch with them for many years to come.

So how was it?

It was hard.
It was frustrating.
It was hot and dusty. 
It was hand washing laundry.
It was lots of rice and beans. 
It was rainy and cold.
It was treating peanut butter like gold.
It was hiking an hour for a meeting only to find it was canceled.
It was a lot of buses and buses packed more full than you could ever imagine. 
It was 10 hour trips to visit friends for one full day and then turning around for another 10 hours home.
It was sitting on someone's porch in a rocking chair while the rain poured down on the tin roof. 
It was bucket showers.
It was reading lots of books. 
It was lots of coffee.
It was watching entire TV series in a weekend. 
It was sitting in my hammock for hours with absolutely nothing to do.
It was times when I was so frustrated that I contemplated just going home. 
It was working every day in Spanish. 
It was business advising.
It was tourist fairs.   
It was a lot of hiking and camping. 
It was trips to the canyon with friends and countless other adventures.
it was a bit like this
It was an adventure that I will remember forever.

Now, on to the next adventure

the Dominican Republic
Thanks to the new skills I learned on my own, coupled with the rest of the Peace Corps experience, I was hired by an NGO based in Boston to be a part of the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Quality Improvement team.  Basically, we're tasked with making sure projects stay on track and are accomplishing what we set out to accomplish.  It's exactly what I was looking for and hoped that Peace Corps could help get the experience necessary to get a job just like this. 

Port Au Prince, Haiti
So to say that I “hit the ground running” might be an understatement after finishing service on July 22nd.  I was home for all of a day and then flew to Vermont for a family reunion, drove to Boston to find a place to live within three days, went on a retreat with my new team from work, was home for a week to pack up, and then moved to Boston and started work a week later. 

I feel like I never had time to even stop and think.  Now it's been almost six months, and I still find myself trying to process all that has happened.  In the meantime, I have been to Haiti and Malawi with work (and a quick stop in the DR) with more trips on the horizon, and I have been trying to break into a new city and figure out the U.S. works again.  It never stops!

My new team at work

One final thought

When I first got back, people would always ask me, “so how was it?”  I often found myself at a loss for how to convey all of the highs and lows, frustrations, successes, failures, and sights that I had seen to an audience that had never experienced those things- let alone condense 27 months of my life into a few short sentences.  Here's my best shot:

I remember talking to a new volunteer that was visiting my site and saying, “Peace Corps breaks you down to the core of who you are, and you have to figure out how to put the pieces back together.”  Peace Corps rocked my world to it's core in many ways.  Thanks to this experience, I have a better idea of what I want, where I am going, and who I want to be. 

I didn't realize how much Peace Corps and Nicaragua had changed me during service, and I often took it for granted.  Now, with more perspective, I realize how much of a formative experience it was.  I am grateful for the Peace Corps experience and all that I learned.  I learned and grew a lot- probably more so than I contributed, but at the end of the day, I am satisfied with the mark that I left on my site and Nicaragua.  Nicaragua and the friends I made there certainly have left a mark on me. It was quite the adventure. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Goodbyes: the Mug Club

Ramón is an English teacher in Somoto, and he is probably one of the best that I have met in town. Ramón’s English level is incredible, especially for someone who learned in Somoto and has never traveled to an English speaking country.  I met him after being subjected to several terrible renditions of “We are the world” by Michael Jackson, “Eye of the Tiger” by Ozzy, and “Hit me baby one more time” by Brittney Spears at a local English singing competition.  He was interested in practicing his English, so I suggested we meet at one of the local coffee shops to hang out.  He was my age, and I was trying to make friends in town, so it was a great for both of us. 

Our afternoon coffee sessions quickly became a tradition.  I decided to name our meetings the “Mug Club” since we would drink coffee while chatting. (and who doesn't like a name that rhymes?)  Ramón would invite his friends occasionally, and one we had eight people chatting in an odd mix of English and Spanish.  I would switch into Spanish if the conversation got too complicated, or they didn’t understand certain parts of what I had said. 

I wouldn’t cut them any slack and spoke to them as I would normally with friends.  Ramón loved it because it gave him a challenge, and he really improved his comprehension during our Mug Club meetings.  He would eagerly write down any words he didn’t know in a notebook he carried with him.  We both learned a lot as I asked questions about how to say different things in Spanish too.  No topic was off limits for the Mug Club. 

Last week, Ramón and some of the guys from the Mug Club invited me to dinner at their home.  They said they wanted to do something for me, even though it wasn’t that big.  Ramón’s wife, Maria Magdalena, made a chicken dish that was a special occasion meal and we pulled out the three liter bottle of Pepsi (a necessity for a Nica party).  Similar to my dinner with my host family, we sat and laughed at all of the funny things we had talked about over the last two years. 

I gave one of the guys grief about not doing a “homework” assignment that I gave him over a year ago.  Every time I saw him he always said he was going to do it soon and he never did.  We decided that in five years when I come back to visit he might have it done.

Ramón went through some of the funny words I had taught him like “hoodlums” and “disenfranchised” or odd sayings like “I was so bored I sat and watched the paint peel.”  We laughed about some of the words that would catch them in English like the pronunciation difference between “leaving” and “living.”  I talked about how I still can’t say certain words with lots of Rs in them. 

I’m glad we were able to have that dinner and spend one last time together.  The Mug Club didn’t really factor into my role as a business volunteer, but it was considered a “side project.”  Not that I really considered it a project at all. We all left having learned something.  Ramón says he’s going to continue the Mug Club with another PCV in Somoto, and he assured me that my legacy as founder will never be forgotten.  
The Mug Club

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Goodbyes: Host Family

I remember walking up the dusty main street of Somoto in July 2012.  I had just arrived after a three and a half hour bus ride, the longest trip I had made at that point, and was excited to be in my new site after several weeks of training.  I was nervous, but I also had high hopes for what life was going to be like here.  I saw my host sister, Eunice, sitting anxiously at the front door of my host family that Peace Corps had arranged.  I took a deep breath and walked into the house that quickly became my home for the first year of my service.

The house didn’t have much.  There was a nice, large patio in the behind the house with my room on the back of the lot.  It seemed like a closet and felt like cave.  I noticed the shower didn’t even have a roof on it- just three walls and a shower curtain.  It’ll be like camping… I told myself, but I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay with this family.

Then my host dad, Chico (nickname for Francisco), and my host mom, Maria, sat down with me at the kitchen table.  We drank coffee from their coffee farm in the mountains to the south of Somoto and ate rosquillas.   They told me that was what somoteños did.  That day was the start of a great relationship that has lasted to this day.

The first time I ironed a shirt and all of the family peaked around the corner watching me, just waiting for something to catch on fire. I looked at my host sister and she said, “¿Sí puedes?” (You can do it?)  Luckily, I never caught any shirts on fire (thanks mom for teaching me how to iron). 

Any time I cooked something new, I would let them try some of it.  The typical response would be, “Sos bien inteligente, Aaron.”  My thought would usually be, “All I did was make pizza, but thanks!”  One time I made spicy chicken taco meat and Maria started coughing because she thought it was so hot.  After that, I always had to assure her three or four times that what I had made wasn’t spicy before she would eat it. 

When I first got to site, I had no idea how to hand wash my clothes and had to ask Maria what I needed to buy.  Then I came back and said, “OK… now what?”  She and I would also joke about how Nicaraguans point with their lips. We would take turns pointing at things and asking if it was the right thing- “Aquí?” “No, está allí”- with our duck lips, laughing the whole time. There also was the time she taught me how to make tortillas and was quite impressed at my tortilla making skills.

One time, Chico helped with my local entrepreneurship competition. He is an accountant and helped judge the finance section of the student business plan.  He took his job very seriously and was impressed with the work I was doing in the schools.  He told me how proud he was to be a part of my project later that even as we sat in the kitchen again, the rain pouring down on the zinc roof, talking about life.

Good memories. Last week I took my host mom and dad out to dinner at the nicest restaurant in Somoto to despedirme. When I arrived to walk to dinner with them, Chico game out with his NC State shirt that I gave him after Christmas this past year. He said he only wears the shirts for special occasions, and this was a very special occasion.  He then proceeded to give me a big bear hug.  It was a great time as we reminisced about all of the silly stories that happened during my time at the house.  

While they aren’t my real family, they certainly hold a special place in my heart after these two years, and I will miss them greatly. They were there for me as I learned how to live in Nicaragua and helped me navigate all of the challenges and questions I had about living there.  

I didn’t visit them as much during my second year after I moved to my own apartment, and that’s something I regret, but every time I did visit, it was like I never had left. After I moved out, I gave them a framed picture of us- it still sits proudly displayed on their mantelpiece, and Chico points it out every time I visit.  I know it will still be there when I visit someday, that Chico will give me a big hug, and we’ll sit down in the rocking chairs to talk about all that has happened since I last visited.  Maria and I will point at various things in the house with duck lips.  We might even have rosquillas and coffee- the true somoteño way.