Monday, September 1, 2008

A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED Part 1......Zen and the art of third world living

I’ve noticed something about living in a third world country, and that is that those who are the happiest and most well adjusted EXPATS are those who simply surrender their first world expectations and accept a new or different way of life. No one “showing up on time to ANYTHING”? Struggling with the “toilet paper DOES NOT GO IN THE TOILET” rule? Finding that “the people down here just don’t know how to ANYTHING RIGHT”? Can’t find ANYWHERE to buy your favorite…….? NO PROBLEM. You’re no longer living in the land of plenty. Accept it…...find a peace within it….and move forward. Aaaaahhhhh ………sweet third world serenity.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spend most of time helping out with a “feeding program” in a local elementary school. Although the food is donated primarily through the US government, the Nicaraguan government, and several small NGO’s, it is ALL stored and cooked on-site. This means that we run a fully functional “school cafeteria” that feeds around 500 kids per day. This also means that there is a LOT of food to cook, a LOT of food to serve, and a LOT of food and dishes to clean up.

For the most part, I’ve done pretty well with the above “Zen and the art of third world living” approach around my new workplace. I mean sure I see things around the feeding program that are CERTAINLY NOT the way I would do them if I WERE IN CHARGE. But I remind myself that “I AM in Nicaragua”, that “they do things differently down here” with “different standards”, and that “I’m not here to come in and change their operation. I’m just here to help and support the program in whatever way possible”.


I don’t really know what was particularly different about that day last week. I suppose that things had been building for quite some time, and that it was simply the final straw. So as I watched the small parasitic worms swimming around in the water we had been using FOR EVERHTHING (yes, EVERYTHING does include “serving in beverage form”), I found myself abruptly arriving at my limit.

You see the actual goal of this program is to GET AND KEEP KIDS IN SCHOOL. And because this school is located in a horribly impoverished area of the city where child labor is more the expectation than the exception, this can be quite a challenge. On one hand, the food is simply a bribe to get a kid to come to school. Beyond that though, because malnourishment is such a problem in the area (and subsequently the numerous associated health concerns), the food serves as, yep you guessed it, NOURISHMENT. So simply put, the program exists to improve the overall health and education of a whole bunch of impoverished kids. If our practices cause or perpetuate illness in any way, then the time has come for a serious re-evaluation.


I’m not a germ-a-phobe. Really, I’m not. Yes. It’s true. I DO keep a tidy house, I DO believe that everything for the most part has a place, and I CAN have a tendency toward excessive order and cleanliness (did I mention I’m an “excellent driver…..excellent….excellent….driver”?). On the other hand though, I’m a BIG believer in the 5 (or 30) second rule of “food in contact with ground/floor”, I believe that expiration dates are generally a marketing tool used by food manufacturers to increase sales, and I view the avoidance of washing hands prior to meals primarily as a way of strengthening the immune system.

“HAZEL, do you notice anything unusual about this water here?”

From the water, we began our tour. We looked at the thick layer of mold in the sink, we examined the grease, grime, old food, and dirt covering all parts of the kitchen, we checked out the PILES of dead insects in all of the cabinets, the holes that the rats had chewed in most every bag of stored food, and the absolutely UNBELIEVABLE amount of rodent feces covering literally EVERYTHING in the storage area (not to mention the carcasses of a few that didn’t make it…..I’m pretty sure they just over-ate). Of course, as we were taking our little tour, we were noticing the cockroaches scurrying about.

After the tour, we talked about various practices, in addition to the general sanitation makeover, that could improve the overall cleanliness of our program. For example, as great as it is that the kids want to wash their hands before eating, it’s probably not the best idea that they come directly from the bathroom to wash their hands IN the water we are using for drinking/dish washing……….just one example.

I knew that a number of changes needed to be made. I also knew that without the support of Hazel (the director of the kitchen) and the other volunteers, I would find myself alone in the kitchen at night, armed only with an arsenal of mouse traps and scrub brushes. Fortunately, Hazel endorsed all of the ideas and agreed that we could begin working toward some much needed change.

Interestingly enough, a group from some branch of the govt. showed up at the school THAT SAME DAY to give a presentation on “clean water practices”. If that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, a group from a different branch of the govt. showed up the following day to inspect the food they had donated. As you can imagine, they weren’t terribly thrilled by what they found.

… be continued.

No comments: