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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Birthday and Semana Santa

My birthday was last month during semana santa (Holy Week), which is basically like spring break for most of Nicaragua.  Most businesses shut down and people all head to the beach, which means they are extra crowded and usually full of unruly characters.  Basically, exactly where you don’t want to be, so I decided to avoid the beach and consider other options.  I know a family that lives in the canyon thanks to working with my tour guide friend, and they had been asking for a while for me to come up and teach them how to make pizza.  I decided that making pizza in the canyon sounded like a great way to celebrate my birthday and avoid the crowds at the beach!

Way back in October, Gonzalo (the guide I work with) and I took a group of tourists up to a family finca (farm) above the canyon.  We camped out at a lookout and ate at the family’s house then rappelled down into the canyon. While we were chatting at breakfast, Gonzalo mentioned that I know how to make pizza and suggested we make some in the wood fired oven the family had.  Dunia was very excited since she does most of the cooking for tourists and wanted to learn how to make another option besides Nica food.  We made plans to make plans…

Months passed, and I saw the family members several times.  Every time our conversation would have something like this, “And the pizza?  When are you going to come and make it?” I would respond, “Soon!  I need to find a good time to do it.”  I always wanted to, but the thought of hiking up there with all of the ingredients (about an hour) didn’t sound exciting to me.  Soon the conversation turned to, “You’re a liar!” in a sort of playful but kind of serious kind of way.  I knew I need to make good on my promise and soon!

My birthday provided the perfect time to follow through on my promise.  I let several people know that I wanted to hang out in the canyon and make pizza for my birthday, and a few of my friends made the trek up to Somoto, as well as some friends of friends who were interested in seeing the canyon.  We split the cost of all the ingredients and trekked them up to the family’s house.   The hike only takes about an hour to an hour and a half, but not everyone was as prepared for it, and some people were huffing by the end.  It all paid off though!

The Mejías live almost completely self-sustainably on their farm, so Gonzalo took some of the group around to show them how the family takes care of their various crops, cattle, and general needs.  While they did that, Dunia and I started work on the pizza making.  She was very intent on learning and had her son take copious notes as I showed her the process of making the dough.  It was also quite the spectacle for most of the family to see a man in the kitchen cooking!

Chef and Sou Chef hard at work:

We made six pizzas in total in their wood fired oven.  Dunia was the master baker after I put the first three in and burned them within two minutes since the oven was so hot.  The pizza still tasted delicious, and our second round came out much better.  Everyone was satisfied and full by the end of dinner, and I was exhausted.  We finished out the night camping at the mirador (lookout point) over the canyon.  

 Headlamps are an important part of baking after sunset in the campo.

The next day, Dunia gave a lesson on how to make tortillas after breakfast, and then we hiked down to the river and went through the canyon.  After two years, I still love it!

It was a great way to celebrate my birthday and also avoid all of the craziness of semana santa elsewhere.  I’m glad some of my closest friends made it up to celebrate with me!

I realize it’s been forever since I’ve written.  I'm not going to promise more updates, but I hope to do a few reflections on service and the last two years.  So stay tuned, just don't hold your breath. ;)

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Competitions

It’s the beginning of November, which means that most small biz development volunteers have been running around trying to organize local and regional business competitions for the entrepreneurship course we work with.  My biggest worry for about a week was whether or not there would be chairs at my local event since the location I booked did not have any.  Just another day in the life of a PCV!

The competition is the culmination of a year’s worth of work in the schools.  We work together with our counterpart teachers to teach the entrepreneurship course each week to hundreds of high school seniors.  Most sections have around 40 students in them, and each week we work through part of the curriculum starting with idea generation all the way to finances and the final business plan.  To provide a bit of motivation, we hold competitions at the end of the year where the student groups compete based on their products and business plan. 

The local:
My local competition was pretty small.  I told each teacher they could bring one group per section of the class they taught for a total of eight teams.  The mayor’s office let us use the Palacio de Cultura to hold the event.  I thought everything was going to be great until I found out that the Palacio de Cultura does not have chairs, or more specifically, it did not have chairs available that day since they were being rented out for another event. 

For about a week, I wondered if I would have chairs or not at the event as I went to both the municipal and departmental delegations of the Ministry of Education trying to get some help with the chair debacle… all to no avail.  The day before the event I got the final “Sorry, we can’t help you,” and set about trying to find some on my own.  Through the power of networking and asking everyone I knew, I found out a pharmacy also rented chairs and they quoted me $3 for 50 chairs.  The only catch was that I needed to transport them myself to and from the event.  Through another round of calling people I knew, one of my teachers talked with a girl in his class who’s dad owned a truck and agreed to help us with the transport.  Crisis averted in the nick of time!
My private school came out in force and brought the whole class. 

This group made an aloe shampoo and demonstrated using it. 

Defending their product. 

We were a bit skeptical on this product. 

I was afraid the table was going to catch on fire. 

The winning group!

The regional:
The winners of my local competition advanced on to the regional level.  We spent another round of edits on the business plans, taking into account what the judges at the local competition had suggested.  The mayor’s office donated about half the cost necessary to get us to the neighboring city, and with some funds from generous friends of mine, I covered the other half. 

The two groups I brought had very different product offerings.  The first, “Bolsos Creativos,” offered a line of purses for women.  A big selling point was that they could make any design you wanted as long as you had a picture of what it was.  
The team along with one of my counterpart teachers, Alex. 

Some last minute presentation advice.

The second, “Cerenutrín,” offered a powdered drink mix made from cacao, coffee, and a few other toasted grains grown locally.  They ground up the ingredients and made a powder to mix with water or milk for a nutritious beverage.  Both were pretty good products.  Perhaps not the newest ideas out there, but both ideas that have a bit of demand here in my site. 

A la desnutrición le pone fin!

Cerenutrín took third place thanks to their energetic marketing pitch during their presentation.  I wish I had a video of it because Marvin, the “Director of Marketing,” was hilarious as he pitched “Con Cerenutrín, a la desnutrición le pone fin. Con fuerza, sabor, y energia.” Or in English- “Put an end to malnutrition with Cerenutrín.  With strength, flavor, and energy.”  His huge smile and enthusiasm totally sold it. 
Marvin at his finest. 
They were really psyched about third place.

So that’s the end of the competitions for me.  I’ll be attending the national level competition in Managua on the 22nd of November, but just to help out since my groups didn’t advance.  The Nicaraguan school year ends at the beginning of December, and my teachers have already finished teaching the curriculum and are now using the class time to catch the kids up on other subjects where they are behind, so I’m transitioning into some other activities.
A bit disappointed at a tough loss. 

Both my teams.