Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taking The Leap

Before coming to Nicaragua, I had never officially lived in a city. I mean sure, I had spent the large majority of my life living in metropolitan areas AROUND various cities (i.e. the BURBS). It’s just that until I shook hands with my current landlords and handed over that first month’s rent, I had never been a TRUE urbanite.

These days, I live in the proverbial concrete jungle. The exhaust, the traffic, the incredible decibel levels, dirt, trash, smog, miles upon miles of broken glass and concrete……THESE are the components of my most recent environment, the place I am calling home. Put another way…….COMPLETE ISOLATION from the natural world. Don’t’ get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this present life, and it’s perfect for my current line of work. It’s just that it has taken a little…….well…..getting used to.

A bit of history: In 1991, for reasons I can’t seem to remember at the moment, I paid my FIRST dues to this new group (new to ME, that is) called The Sierra Club. And since a short time after, I seem to have been a tree-hugging/veggie-and-granola-eating/Birkenstock-wearing/hippie freak, to one degree or another (OK…at least on the INSIDE). To put it another way, I’m a BIG fan of the natural world…..yes, card-carrying ENVIRONMENTALIST…… and as one can imagine, the great state of Colorado, where I have called my home for the previous 11 years or so, has proven to be a spectacular place for someone such as myself to hug a tree or two (or at least ski amongst them). The majesty and intrinsic beauty of it all.....definitely food for the soul……and certainly a far cry from my CURRENT surroundings that tends to burn, kill, eat, or needlessly destroy anything that lives, breathes, moves, or grows in any form or fashion.

I think the first time I noticed “the void” was last year while making my way south through Costa Rica. I had just left Managua that morning and was traveling through the mountains en route to Panama. The bus stopped for a short break, and I got off to relieve myself of the morning’s excess of coffee. The only available facility was a small store/bathroom that was constructed quite literally into the side of the hill. And it was within this facility….um……mid-stream…..where I noticed the wall was the actual hillside. Soil……earth…..dirt……..TERRA FIRMA. There it was, in all its glory. It struck me as something so unusual, so foreign, so out of place…..and so…so….strangely wonderful. An odd moment……a ridiculous story, I know…..but profound nonetheless.

Since that time, I’ve experienced a number of such moments (don’t worry….all completely OUTSIDE the realm of restrooms and bodily functions) that have lead me to a very similar conclusion. The conclusion, that is, that it is absolutely necessary to get out of the city now and then. Whether it’s the beach (one hour to the East)….the mountains (one hour to the North)……a local volcano (take your pick….plenty to choose from)……or just a small pueblo outside of Managua…’s essential for the maintenance of inward health and wellbeing.

That being said, when my friend Lila suggested a trip to a nearby “refuge” for a bit of hiking and rappelling, I told her I was in.

“Just say the word, and I’m there!!!!!”

And after several weeks of ………“well, we WERE going to go, but this or that happened, or this or that person backed out”……… the big day finally arrived. I got up early on Sunday morning, did my usual routine, met Lila and the rest of the group, and got on the road by 8AM. By 10AM, we had passed through countless small towns and navigated more than a few curvy mountain roads in order to arrive at what was perhaps the most foreign site I had seen in quite some time.
“Ummmm…..excuse me, but does that sign really say “Eco-lodge” and “Nature-preserve”??????

Fortunately, that is exactly what it said, and within minutes we were admiring a beautiful view of the Masaya Volcano and lake (OK….so MAYBE the majority of the raw sewage from the town just MIGHT flow directly into the lake……but let’s just focus on the view for now) while standing next to a sign exhibiting the various species of birds indigenous to the area.

“Yeeeesssss………I do believe this is going to be a good day”.

Within a few MORE minutes, after getting more acquainted with the group, I realized that we were actually on an organized outing by something called RAPPEL TEAM. Hiking…...savoring the beauty of the natural world…….well, that may have been a bit of a stretch for the day’s agenda. In reality, we were there to do ONE THING and one thing only, to jump off a 200’ cliff. And the more I talked with the members of this newly discovered subculture, the more it became clear that they were certainly motivated by the “adrenaline aspect” of things.

“I’m a teacher during the week, but on the weekends I do anything I can find that’s DANGEROUS….anything that has the potential of killing me!!!!”

….note to self…..remember not to catch a ride home with THAT guy.

“Hey Jason……what’s the MOST EXTREME thing you’ve ever done????? Mine is skydiving. Woohooooooo!”

“You’re from Colorado? I heard that they have A reserve in Colorado that’s JUST FOR SKIING!!!”

“Yep….absolutely true,” I told him. “We do have ONE of those”.

After the big HIKE from the “eco-lodge” to the rappel site (all 1minute and 30 seconds of it……downhill), Team Rappel began setting up the ropes. Now, although I don’t consider myself a true expert in such matters, I’m also no stranger to the “sport” of rappelling. Between various recreational pursuits in the mountains, technical rescue team with the fire dept., and those pine trees in Steven Flynt’s backyard (cirque 1985), I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the world of ropes and knots. But as often crosses my mind, such things as SAFETY STANDARDS don’t always carry the exact same meaning in this part of the world.

“….better pay particularly close attention to the system they’re setting up”.

Well, after putting together a pretty good “anchor” and giving a VERY BRIEF instructional talk, they asked if I wanted to be the first to go. After all, I was the only person that brought any personal gear. Checking and rechecking harnesses, carabineers, knots, and other equipment using the buddy system? Not in this group. Safety line in case of emergency or catastrophic failure of the system? Nope…not today……they forgot that at home.

“So you’re asking me if I want t be the first one to TEST THE SYSTEM? Thanks but no thanks”, I said. “I trust you and all, buuuuuuuut NO”.

Fortunately, despite that fact that I would have certainly made a few minor adjustments here and there, everything turned out just fine (i.e. nobody plummeted to a premature death). I ended up going in the middle of the group, and really did enjoy the descent…….beautiful volcanic cliff and even BETTER view than the one from the lodge. Of course, upon reaching the bottom, I was quickly reminded of just WHERE I was by ONE…..the enormous amount of garbage (literal) on the rocks below, and TWO…..the two guys carrying assault rifles and machetes.

“Funny….I don’t remember THEM being in our group”.

“So what are you guys shooting today?”, I asked.

NO response.

“I’m hoping it’s not anything of the human variety….yea?”.

Vague smiles.

For the next hour or so, we waited at the bottom of the cliff for the rest of the group to make the descent. It was quiet and beautiful, and I even saw a bit of wildlife (large white owl that we startled from the cliff wall). We hung out watching the individual descents, all the while dodging rock fall from above (literally the most dangerous part of the day……..have you guys thought about investing in helmets? ) until it came time for the actual HIKE back, a 30 minute scramble up the adjacent hill……..lots of fun.

From there, we enjoyed an excellent lunch prepared by the folks at “the lodge” and ended up rolling out around 5PM. I arrived back in Managua an hour or so later, rested and refreshed for yet another week in my little “paradise by the lake”. As I always do after a mini-vacation from the city, I experienced a nice sense of rejuvenation, as if the soul had just done the old……

“And now that we’ve all found our happy place……inhale through the nose………..OK, hold it……and exhale through the mouth……….aaaaahhhhhhh.”

Also, as is often par for the course around here, the lack of stress accompanying my mini-vacation was relatively short-lived. That same night, one of the dogs from our house found herself on the wrong end of a speeding vehicle. In the end, all was well that ended well. But in the midst of it all, I learned that although I AM still technically a paramedic, I’m NOT much of veterinarian.

……..but that’s another story for another day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Home Depot, Frogger, And A Change Of Scenery

So I drove around Colorado Springs, past the big box stores, the malls, the businesses, the roads, the other vehicles on the roads, etc. etc. etc. And I just kept being struck by the absolute ENORMITY of it all. I’ll give you an example. The average hardware store here in Managua is about the size of the rental desk at your local airport. In contrast, as I was driving around Colorado, I continued to notice..........uh….well…..there’s another one…….HOME DEPOT.
And SPEAKING of driving……..

I know I’ve written quite a bit about the culture of third world traffic over the last year, especially after my little run-in (literal) with the transit system last year. But at the risk of being redundant, I have to say that I was ONCE AGAIN struck by the culture of transit, this time from the other side.

As a pedestrian, I’ve found navigating the streets here in Managua to be quite similar to the game FROGGER (think Atari…1983). The pedestrians are EVERYWHERE and cross one lane at a time, pausing regularly to stand on the painted (at least there USED to be paint) lane markers as traffic whizzes by VERY close and often VERY fast. It’s as if these poorly painted lines are capable of offering some type of traffic-shield or oasis of safety, like the “safety zones” from one of those games you would play as a kid. Fortunately, I haven’t witnessed any auto-pedestrian accidents yet. But I always imagine the post-accident conversation as the reporting is officer takes the report.

Driver……I don’t know what she was thinking. She crossed right in front of me!

Pedestrian…..NO! NO! I was on the line! I was in the safety zone! YOUR FAULT….YOUR FAULT!!!

To me, it seems horribly dangerous and unpredictable. On the other hand, if done correctly, it seems to be relatively quick and painless. The streets are all very small, and one can generally be across in no time.

Because I spent most of the vacation at my brother’s house in Colorado Springs, I was able to WALK most of my local errands. Obviously, along with that, I found myself crossing the streets on a daily basis. As I mentioned, in Nicaragua it’s quick and painless. On the contrary, in Colorado each crossing seemed like an eternity. Seriously! After looking both ways like the good pedestrian I am, I would regularly start to cross the street, only to be struck by the fact that after what seemed like a SIGNIFICANT period of time and several city blocks, I WAS STILL CROSSING THE SAME STREET!!!!!!!. It was incredible! I got to the point that I was having to give myself the same little pep talk that I give myself at the base of especially long endeavors of the athletic variety (i.e. mountain climbing).

“Remember Jason……you’ve trained hard…’re ready….this is NOT a sprint……this IS a marathon…..ready?......OK let’s cross.”

Driving. Driving in the US is quite unique in its own way, but before I go in that direction, I’ll make one last reference to the culture down south. Remember that Frogger game? OK, now we’re in one of the cars. There are the pedestrians wandering about the lanes, the taxies and buses with their utter lack of predictability, the wooden carts pulled by either people or livestock, the disrepair of the roads and other vehicles making their way along the same path of travel, the lack of actual lanes, the trash, old tires, and debris (often times on fire) sprinkled about the roadway, etc. etc. etc. It’s really not that bad and something that I think I’ve grown relatively accustomed to, but it’s ANYTHING but relaxing. Not unlike the scenario I just described above, I often give myself that little pep talk upon mounting the motorcycle each day. After all, to turn on the motor and enter the race without first putting on the proper “game face”……well…..that’s just asking for trouble.

But as I reunited with my trusty sidekick in the US (1990 Subaru Legacy sedan……280K and still going strong……baby!!!!!) and took to the streets, I found myself confronted with a challenge of a slightly different variety. The streets…..the traffic…..the whole system……so LARGE… SMOOTH….so PREDICTABLE….ORGANIZED…….and so…….aaaaahhhhhh…….utterly relaxing.
You see, the problem I found in the US was the exact opposite of the problem I have here in Nicaragua. The problem I had in the US was literally staying AWAKE! I’m not kidding. I would get in the car to drive somewhere, only to find that within 10 or 15 minutes, I was struggling to keep my eyes open! Everything was so tranquil and mellow…..the radio….…..the purr of the 1990 4 cylinder technology……the sun shining through the windows……the ease of it all… utterly……utterly…..

…..whoa, sorry about that, I actually just nodded off thinking about it.

……..Utterly relaxing. It was like getting some kind of transit massage. I kept thinking that I was like one of those infants that get placed in the minivan by their parents and driven around the block until reaching a point of slumber. Struggling with insomnia? I had certainly found the cure. And I know….I know….there are a myriad of dangers associated with being lulled into a sense of complacency amidst making one’s way from point A to point B. But the difference between my two respective cultures was comically astounding…….such worlds apart.

But alas, as both pedestrian AND driver in my great homeland, I survived my six week vacation and lived to Blog another day from………well, THAT brings me to my next story. The initial plan was to head south for ONE year. I took the leave of absence from the fire dept, made a few changes (sold a house, began my personal “liquidation of assets”, etc. etc. etc.), and pledged to spend the next 12 months working a few things out of my proverbial system. Not terribly surprising though, as the 12 months unfolded, I found myself unable to shake the increasing desire to stick around a bit longer. How much longer? That’s yet to be determined. All I can say is that at this point, I’ve labeled myself as “here indefinitely”.

Soooo……to prepare for the “indefinite” life change, I spent the six weeks in Colorado taking care of all the associated logistics. There was the official resignation from LFR, the completion of the liquidation (with my 2 new best friends……Craigslist and Salvation Army), the many trips and phone calls to the various banks, insurance companies, tax man, etc. etc. etc. But it wasn’t ALL business. I had a great time staying with family (maybe a little TOO good….tough to leave), caught up with some friends, and even survived a few Colorado hikes despite my 12 month hiatus from any form of physical exercise. Oh, and besides that, I became a temporary jewelry salesman to benefit the project here in Nicaragua (not bad for my first time out…..if I do say so myself).

And that was that…….six weeks in the land of plenty before heading south once again. I won’t lie…..last year was challenging in many ways, and I was certainly in need of some rest by mid December. But after my little Christmas break, I returned rested and refreshed (both mentally and physically), ready to pick up where I left off.

Before leaving the US, I was at the point of experiencing only the occasional moment of shock from a cultural perspective. When I landed on the other side though, I realized that I was in for yet another adjustment. I had been away just long enough to return to things looking different, smelling different, and seeming different than they had just six weeks prior. At the same time though, there was a pleasant familiarity about it all. I was welcomed back warmly by my “community” down here, I still had a bed to sleep in (albeit a filthy one due to the continual influx of dust from the street outside), and the motorcycle started…….eventually. Yep, it felt good to be back. I mean sure the Spanish was a bit rusty, but the passing busses didn’t even seem as loud as last year (yes I know……potential hearing loss on my part….but I’m choosing to focus on the positive).

Around work, there has been a flurry of activity as the school year has started up again. NicaHOPE has added a variety of new projects, and my personal level of responsibility basically doubled overnight with the addition of a second feeding program. Things are busy but good. Outside of work, I’ve been meeting lots of new folks, getting to know the country more (i.e. traveling), and pledging on a weekly basis to paint and decorate the room (it may actually happen eventually). AND…..I am happy to report that contrary to last year, I have remained physically healthy since my return in 09. Ahhhhh…….life is good.

So we’ll see where things go. As I mentioned above, the plan is to stick around for a while, at the moment quite unsure as to where or to what that may eventually lead. In the meantime I’m simply attempting to focus on the here and now…….the present. After all, that’s all we really have……right?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Great Homecoming

By the time mid December had rolled around, the school year had reached its annual finale with a VERY inspirational 6th grade graduation. In addition to that, our projects had mostly run their courses, and the flood refugees, as much as I cared for and enjoyed them, had brought me to a new level of “end of the year burnout”. I was at a point of having fulfilled many of the original intentions for the “year abroad”, a year that had brought a few highs, a disproportionate number of lows, and many more challenges than had been anticipated. The holiday season was upon us, so after celebrating my first “Purisima” here in Nicaragua several days prior (think a mix of Halloween, Christmas, and 4th of July……..all from a CATHOLIC point of view ), I found myself getting up in the wee hours of the morning and driving east in the direction of the airport. It was time to decompress…..relax….recover a bit……process the year. Exactly 11 months to the day after flying south from Colorado, the time had come for the migration in the northern direction. The time had come, that is, for a vacation.

For several weeks leading up to my flight, I had been thinking about my re-entry into the” first world”. I had been away for almost one year and had grown quite accustomed to Managuan life. But even beyond that, I had grown accustomed to the “lower end” of Nicaraguan life and culture, to the point that I had recently experienced a bit of “culture shock” upon going to the one nice mall in town. And in anticipating the probability of a similar experience on a much larger scale, I was nervously asking myself “What’s it going to be like back in the US?????”

The first answers began to emerge as soon as my flight touched down in Houston. I entered the airport, an airport that suddenly seemed so……absolutely enormous……clean……sterile……luxurious. I entered into the immigration area.
“wow…….so many CLEARLY MARKED lines……so ORDERLY……so…….”

“Sweet Maria! I’ve never seen so many flat screens in one place! And what’s that video they’re playing? It’s just so……so…..inspirational! But what is it for? Is it a commercial? Music video? Travel show? The music…..the scenery…..the cinematography……so professionally produced……the….yes, the PEOPLE……so incredibly attractive and happy! I don’t know where that is, but I WANT TO GO! I want to go NOW! I want to……….hang on a second. I think I’m already THERE! Because THERE is…..well…’s……HERE! Yes, it IS a commercial of sorts. But it’s a commercial for AMERICA. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it is…..a commercial for America, right here in the middle of the immigration line. I’m literally watching a promotional video for my country as I’m standing in a line, waiting to be allowed INTO the SAME country. But that seems, well, odd. Are they trying to inspire us to stay IN the line? As if there would be people who get this far but still find themselves on the proverbial fence? Like…….

…..uh oh…I’m three….two….one person away from showing my passport. Uhhhh….should I…….wait…..uh! I don’t know what I’m going to do! I THOUGHT I wanted to go in, but now I’m not sure if I can commit! No! I can’t! What was I thinking??!!!! I have to get out of this line…this airport….this country!!! NOW! I have to leave right…….oh….but….oh wow…..that scenery….music………if THAT’S the US, I want to be a part of that! I absolutely LOVE IT!!! I WANT IT! CRAVE IT! I WILL stay in this line! I WILL enter this country! Thank you flat screen TV’s! Thank you USA marketing team! Thank You HOUSTON AIPORT! May God bless you….and may God bless the United States of America!!!!!

……..NEXT!.......passport please.

Or maybe they want us to feel good…..or perhaps better…..about the decision we had already made at that point. Like…….

I don’t know what I was thinking. This first world stuff is BUNK! USA… in Utterly Stupid Attempt… being a country. Uh…I REALLY hate it here. Why did I come back? BAD decision. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! But…wait…..(enter video once again resulting in similar scenario as reported above).

I don’t know, I suppose it really was a great video. And YES….I MAY have even teared up a bit (if you tell anyone, I’ll TOTALLY deny that) in that line, passport in hand. But it did strike me as a bit odd….and INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE to produce and exhibit on all of those flat screen TVs.
But with such questions still lingering, I showed my passport, denied any involvement in criminal activity abroad (um….mam, could you be more specific about how you define “criminal activity”?), and passed through the gates into the designated “free” (as in liberty….not dollars) part of the country.

Next stop? Baggage claim in order to retrieve my bags and then re-check them domestically. Initial impressions of THIS area? Again……so large….clean…..and……

”I wonder how much those decorative suitcases that light up on top of EVERY carousel cost this airport (i.e. taxpayers)?”

After dealing with the bags, it was on to the gate. While en route, I noticed yet another circle of TVs in the ceiling, this time displaying various artistic designs in unison. In fact, I was so struck by them, I had to stop and count them. 82. “Unbelievable”, I thought, “this really IS the land of plenty”.

Moving on to the gate. I think besides the……CART!!!......besides the sheer “abundance” . That is, besides being struck by the……..MOVE TO THE RIGHT!......uh…sorry……the overt excess of it all, I noticed…….BEEP BEEP!!!......CART COMING THROUGH!!!.......

FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Apart from me, does anyone WALK to their gate anymore????? This is like a super highway!!!!!!!!

OK…sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yes. Another thing that stuck me immediately upon arriving to Houston was the ability to understand EVERYTHING around me. And this one really was nice. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve come a long way in the last year with respect to the language. I work and function exclusively in Spanish on a daily basis and have immersed into the culture with relative success. But there is still SO MUCH that I miss both culturally and linguistically as I go about my average day. As I am reminded often, the old saying can certainly be true. The devil IS often in the details, and I can easily find myself in a bit of a jam as a result. But here in THIS country, I could understand EVERYTHING!!! All these people around me? Understood. That lady complaining about her boyfriend on her cell phone? Crystal clear. Ahhhh… nice. I mean……excuse me for a moment……

“what….he did WHAT? Oh no he di-int! Yes honey….you SHOULD call it off with that loser…..the sooner the better! He doesn’t deserve you! You’re better than that! You got to be tru to YO-SELF!.”

Again….I apologize for the interruption. It’s a bit difficult to describe this one, but I think it falls under the category of “depth of understanding”, an intangible yet vital aspect of finding one’s way in a given culture. In my new life, it’s an ever-present challenge, and I often times tend to run a bit shallow. Here in the USA, I’m happy to report that I am one deep muchacho.
“aaaahhhh……it’s good to be home”.

Well, after my first visit to Starbucks in a year (HOW MUCH for the muffin????), several hours of people-watching (everyone is so LARGE…..and…..PALE), and the final leg of the journey (pleasantly uneventful), I was back home in Colorado with just enough time to catch the sunset over the Rockies. Beautiful. Home Sweet Home.

Here in Nicaragua, in an attempt to elevate and fortify my seemingly pathetic and puny immune system (definitely on the list of “challenges” from last year), I take a LOT of Vitamin C. The actual TAKING of various dietary supplements is no problem. OBTAINING them, on the other hand, even something as simple as Vitamin C can be, like many other things around here, easier said than done. If I’m lucky and time it just right, there will be one or two bottles of the ONE type of Vitamin C at the ONE store where I can find it on a regular basis. If not…..well, maybe next time. Bearing this in mind, you can imagine my shock as I stood, mouth open, in front of the literal WALL of Vitamin C. It was Day 2 of “re-entry 08”, and I had just walked into the local Whole Foods store.

“I don’t know what to say…..what to think…..or where to even begin. I just need a small bottle of C…….mam? Excuse me…….mam? Um, I think I’m going need a bit of assistance over here in the C aisle!”

Whole Foods.....definitely one of my favorite stores in the traditional sense. I mean I really enjoy food…..APPRECIATE it……..QUALITY food, that is……the flavors…..cultures…….idea of what it can represent between friends and family. I’m not sure if I’d be considered a true “foodie” (nope, don’t watch the food network), but I HAVE been known to have a truly great day simply as a result of enjoying the perfect mango in the AM. And coffee? I won’t even get started.

I was EXCITED to come to Whole Foods, and it had only been a year since my last visit. But as I passed through the aisles…..the produce section…..bulk foods…….seafood…….prepared foods…..bakery…….Asian……Italian…….well, you get the idea……I have to admit that it was a bit overwhelming. I think the best way I can explain it is that it felt as though EVERY nation on Earth had taken a collection of the absolute BEST foods that their perspective cultures had to offer and sent them to this ONE Whole Foods in a remote corner of Colorado Springs ON THE SAME DAY! As if there was some type of annual food festival for the entire WORLD, and I had just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

“Good Afternoon Whole Food Shoppers! TODAY ONLY…….we’re featuring the best of……EVERYTHING!!!!!! Enjoy your shopping.”

Yea, definitely a bit overwhelming. In fact, I wasn’t even able to finish my much anticipated “tour de samples” due to complete sensory overload. The second half of the store would have to wait for another day. I had had enough for day 2, and reverse culture shock was in full effect………..