Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Little Bit Of This......A Little Bit Of That PART II

As I mentioned in PART I, this Blog series is meant to offer a bit of insight into my Nica life. Below are three short stories involving my work, the struggles of the locals, and another average day. Enjoy the insight.


As I’ve mentioned before, I spend most of my volunteer time with the “feeding program” through NicaHOPE. I’ve also mentioned some of the changes I’ve initiated around there with respect to such things as sanitation, etc. I’m happy to report that the level of sanitation has gone up DRAMATICALLY in our little school cafeteria! I haven’t seen a rat in weeks, the cockroaches have stopped congregating in their usual gathering places, and the flies, fungi, and germs have apparently moved on in search or more fertile lands. AND, with the success of the sanitation came requests to improve the program in other areas. Requests from whom, you ask? The MAN…..the SUITS….the BOYS UPSTAIRS……the TOP BRASS. We’re improving the QUALITY of the ingredients, we’re improving the QUANTITY of the portions, and we’re working to organize the volunteers to ensure good and consistent help. The results? Well, the program is without a doubt on an upward trajectory toward excellence. It’s just that it hasn’t exactly come without a price. Remember my friend Hazel who technically “coordinates” or “runs” the program from “inside” the kitchen? Well, Hazel has been a bit “less than supportive” of the improvements, and I have suddenly found myself taking a more “active” role in the daily operation of the program. More accurately put, I’m finding myself running the program from a position located somewhere between the encouragement of the folks upstairs and the discouragement of the boss in the kitchen. Since I’m technically a mere volunteer who carries (nor wants) no real authority, things have gotten a bit………sticky.

I WISH I could describe the conflict between Hazel and I as something from one of the local Spanish “novellas”.

“What???? Are you completely INSANE? That’s the STUPIDEST things I’ve EVER heard!!!!!!”

“Oh yea?? Well YOU’RE STUPID! In fact, I find you utterly REPULSIVE! DETESTABLE!”

“That goes DOUBLE for me!!!”

………..without warning, they are suddenly locked in a passionate embrace. Dishes are flying in all directions. The beans on the stove are burning intensely, not unlike the passion within their hearts.

“I hate you SO MUCH!”

“I know! Me too! I hate you with every fiber of my being……I hate you with all the blackness in the soul of humanity……I hate you so much, you’re absolutely………absolutely……..IRRESISTABLE!!!”


Cue lights…..cue wind machine……XXXXXXXXXXXOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Yes, I’d love to report a story like that. Unfortunately, not unlike the novellas, it would be complete and utter fiction. The GOOD news though, is that in the midst of a bit of job related friction, I’ve been increasing my proficiency in two KEY areas…….conflict resolution in the workplace…….and……..arguing in a foreign language.

Camp Acahualinca

UNLIKE Colorado, where there are four beautiful and distinct seasons, this part of the world enjoys only two……WET and DRY. Currently, we are in the WET. To be more accurate, over the last week or so, we seem to be in SUPER WET. What happens when ALL of the water from the surrounding area drains into Lake Managua? The lake rises, of course. What happens when you happen to live in the low lying area AROUND the lake? Exactly…’s time to relocate.
I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking something along the lines of:

“What’s wrong with these people? It’s just like parts of the US! People build their houses on flood plains, and then act surprised when it floods! What a bunch of morons!!!!”

Unfortunately, it’s not QUITE that simple. In Managua, unlike many parts of the US, the property located around the shores of the lake is not exactly the most desired. The lake is horribly contaminated, filthy, and by definition the lowest point in the area. You’ve heard the expression. It’s true. It literally DOES flow downhill. So who inhabits the LEAST desirable land in the area? Of course…..the POOREST people in the area.

When the rain didn’t stop, the water rose. When the water rose, the people were forced to evacuate. When the people evacuated, my “place of business”, Acahualinca Elementary, experienced a sudden transformation from a school into a place of refuge (think a cross between a homeless shelter and a refugee camp). Over the last couple of weeks, we have had as many as 350 people and as few as 30. Right now, as I write this, we are somewhere in the middle. Camp Acahualinca is certainly “no frills”. There are no “uncomfortable beds” or army-green cots. There are no food and water stations or portable showers. There CERTAINLY aren’t volunteers in brightly colored t-shirts walking around, serving in various capacities. What there IS however is whatever you happen to have brought with you and a space on a concrete floor. Didn’t happen to bring a pillow, blanket, basic essentials, etc.? Sorry. You’re out of luck. Here’s your piece of concrete. At least it’s not raining in here.

The government brought rice, beans, and a bit of milk. As for getting them cooked, the people were on their own. Tthis is where I come in. The good news for the flood victims around Acahualinca is that although the school doesn’t have showers, it DOES have a cafeteria. Over the last week, I’ve taken off my “lunch lady” hairnet and put on my “disaster relief” cap (hey, I suppose there IS one volunteer in a brightly colored t-shirt…….minus the brightly colored t-shirt). The overall operation has been organized primarily through a handful of “community organizers” (no, that’s NOT a reference to Obama). I simply help out on the food and water side of things, ensuring that they always have WHAT they need, WHEN they need it. I’ve enjoyed my new role. It’s sort of like entertaining guests.

Tomorrow, for the first time in a week, there are supposed to be SOME children returning to the school. Although the rains have subsided dramatically, the lake has continued to rise. There are reports of alligators eating dogs, a new infestation of snakes and mosquitoes, and more rain on the way. I actually took a tour of the affected area today, and all I can say for now is that (to borrow a phrase from a friend) I feel as though I was just PUNCHED IN THE MIND. As I write this, the thunder in the distance has rapidly grown closer, bringing with it the familiar sound of rain on the metal roof above. As for how long I’ll be wearing this particular hat, I suppose it’s anyone’s guess.

Another Day In The Life

The day started around 6:30 with the sounding of the cell phone alarm clock, and after going a couple rounds with the “snooze alarm”, I was up making coffee while listening to the bustling sounds of the street outside my room. As I’ve mentioned before, the #7 and the #54 (bus routes) start REALLY early, and that’s to say NOTHING of the roaving street venders, taxis, and pedestrians all rushing about in an effort to arrive to their respective destinations on time.
NEVER in my adult life have I had a regular or daily schedule. To be quite honest, even though I’ve worked full-time for years, I’ve never had what would be classified as a “regular” job (some would say I’ve never had a REAL job). Ironically, as I’ve left the work force and assigned myself to official volunteer status, I’ve suddenly found myself living the life of the daily grind. It has certainly taken some getting used to, but really hasn’t been all that bad. There are some real advantages to a regular schedule, and I prefer to focus in THAT direction.

The first hour and a half were spent drinking high quality coffee (one of the luxuries I allow myself), eating a “pico” (sort of a cross between a donut and a croissant), reading, writing, and contemplating the world. I call it “easing into the day”, and it’s a time I’ve grown to appreciate greatly.

After being properly adjusted (and subsequently regulated, thanks to the coffee……yet another advantage of keeping a regular schedule), I was off for the school. Lunch-lady duty generally lasts most of the day. If I’m lucky, and if there is a sufficient number of volunteers that day, I can be out by three. After a short meeting over at “the office”, it was time to head for home.
The water is turned off daily from 5-11. The goal is to always be in and out of the shower by 5 (side note… most folks in the country, there is no such thing as a HOT shower in my current world). If I catch it as it’s in the process of shutting down (the city generally lowers the pressure gradually over the course of 30 minutes or so), there is water to the sink AFTER there is NO WATER to the shower. With a bit of creativity, I can still get in a pretty decent rinse. If I miss it altogether, it’s a late night bathing session. For the most part, I have no problem with the water schedule. When the city randomly changes the schedule however (relatively common), I curse them with great fervor.

Fortunately, I made it that day. After a quick shower and a ridiculously large slice of papaya (my new favorite fruit), it was time to reach out and touch the world. I’ve mentioned the word “adjustment” a couple times already, and the internet is another area of such an adjustment. I really couldn’t care less about having a TV in the house. Conversely, I’m not sure I would function particularly well without the internet. To have excruciatingly slow speed is one thing (welcome to the world wide web from Nicaragua). To NOT have “home internet” is another. Both have taken some getting used to. Fortunately though, there are several “Cybers” in the neighborhood, all within walking distance (yes, I’m still carrying the laptop through the neighborhood, contrary to the persistent warnings of the neighbors). The average internet session is one hour and runs about fifty cents. That day was no exception. I checked my emails, got a quick fix with my new addiction called Facebook, and greeted “the regulars” staring randomly into the various magic boxes.

After catching up on the latest political gossip and being properly connected with the world, I made a quick trip to the video store (got to avoid those late fees) and then stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few key ingredients for that night’s dinner. The cooking was minimal, but the dinner turned out quite well. And, since the youngest little sister (16) needed help with her English homework, there wasn’t much time to digest. The next hour or two were spent tutoring in the area of elementary English. Hopefully she learned a thing or two. I know I did. We finished the assignment nonetheless.

Dishes……more visiting with the family and neighbors…….it was now time to wind things down and debrief the day with the older little sister (18). We sat on the stoop in front of the house and enjoyed a brief recess from the rain. A bit of listening about recent boy troubles…….an encouraging word here and there……maybe some counsel when solicited. Basically, it was just hanging out and enjoying the cool of the evening.

Since it was getting late, it was time to call it a day. On the average night, the street is officially deserted by 9 or 9:30. I think this is mostly out of fear or concern for safety. Regardless, it’s probably best to go with the flow on that one. AND, since I was engrossed in my latest literary undertaking (reading a really good book, that is), I was looking forward to knocking off a few chapters before officially waving the white flag of surrender.

I finished the day in the same manner it began…….relaxing…… reading….thinking…..looking for a good story or a bit of inspiration……..easing into the night. And that was pretty much it. Of course, I left out PLENTY of details amidst the daily grind. Weaving their way through the general outline of the day are no shortage of humorous anecdotes, cultural mishaps, challenges of all types, confrontations with the world of poverty or the process of finding my way in a foreign land, and various fires to put out in any number of areas (the figurative kind these days). It was a good day, an average day. It’s certainly wasn’t a glamorous or particularly riveting 24 hours. But as the title implies, this one was just “another day in the life”.

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