Coming Home Is Strange…But So Is Everything Else.

Today marks six months since Michaela and I finished our two year service overseas with the Peace Corps.

Coming home after service is supposed to feel strange. Transitioning from a life created in a community where opportunity is lacking to a society where it’s relatively plentiful, albeit unevenly distributed, is an adjustment just as significant as doing the reverse. Some cognitive discordance is to be expected as your mind tries to make sense of your new surroundings, which offer the material pleasures you once craved but also contain constant reminders of what led you to leave in the first place. There is a heightened awareness of the disproportionate level of access everyone enjoys here to even the most basic public goods, such as well-kept roads, running water, and reliable electricity. Sure, there are gaps, but it looks like an unfettered utopia coming from a nation that has a GDP .07 percent the size of ours.

Finding a job, working in a pristine air-conditioned (and heated!) office, tying a tie — these all come back surprisingly fast. Other things take more time, such as rediscovering your sense of agency in a culture that not only allows you to speak up, but indeed expects it. On the flight back from Central America, I observed a stewardess promise a woman she’d bring the cabin’s temperature down after the woman complained about the heat. At the time, I found the reaction to such a bold and self-important request astounding. Then, I remembered this is perfectly appropriate behavior in a place where the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Managua, I joked that the motto for customer service was, “The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes they’re just flat out wrong.” Too hot on a bus? Too bad. Here in America, you go to a restaurant and send your dish back if it doesn’t look right. Feel cheated or swindled? Seek your revenge on Yelp. It’s amazing what technology and a thriving service economy can do. Likewise, in my current job, working for a public relations firm, I am disposed to always be thinking about client satisfaction and how I can surpass expectations to keep our company ahead of competition. Produce a product that satisfies a need, but stay in tune with micro and macro trends that give clients the experience they crave.

Within a few weeks, I was back in the swing of speaking up for fuller, better experiences. In fact, I feel much more willing to speak up about things that bother me here because, well, you can! You can ask movie theater patrons to scoot down a chair so you and your date can squeeze into a row that isn’t in the front. You can tell someone they can’t park in an illegal spot that blocks you from passing. You can vow to never go to an overpriced restaurant again, because there are a hundred other options that serve better food and have stronger coffee. You can push in a way that isn’t perceived as aggressive, but rather assertive, and certainly not antagonistic as it would be in Nicaragua.

(I should note that United Airlines is doing a good job challenging this norm.)

There were other things besides convenience and choice, of course, that made being back in an advanced economy an almost euphoric experience, but after a while the novelty found in familiarity begins to wear off and first-world habits accumulated over a lifetime reboot themselves with little to no effort. Whereas my first few months were spent thinking about how thankful I was to not be sitting on a cramped bus sandwiched between two large people with beads of sweat running down my forehead, in recent weeks I’ve grown nostalgic for my daily commute in an old school bus to my school in La Esperanza. I miss hanging out at my counterpart’s house and feeding my students’ curiosity about life in the United States.

Six months into our return, I find myself wondering when I might get a chance to return to Nicaragua. Whether it was on the street or in the classroom, I miss the we’re-in-this-together mentality people possess and the feeling that the only direction was up (with the exception of boarding a bus, where it was every last man, woman, and infant baby for themselves). I miss how hard people worked in spite of the oppressive heat. I miss their sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Unless I was teaching English grammar, I rarely heard people complain. There was simply true grit, a passion and persistence that I had never encountered before – a fierce drive to persevere in the face of adversity to get things done. It’s no wonder that in spite of economic and political barriers, it was recently recognized as making the greatest gains in overall happiness in the World Happiness Report 2017.

Fortunately, my sense of gratitude for really simple things— like free refills of coffee at a local diner and the hot tub at my apartment complex— hasn’t dissipated. Hot showers are still amazing. Being close to family again is priceless.

Overall, I expected to have these feelings. I expected the culture shock. What I certainly didn’t expect was to have to grapple with a political earthquake that felt like a tectonic plate had been ripped from the Earth’s crust and flipped completely upside down to reveal an ugly, festering accumulation of resentment, fear, and scapegoating. Navigating this has been one of the most difficult aspects of our return. Like most, I was surprised. Like most, I was disappointed. And like most, I am disheartened to see our nation divided in a way I have never seen in my lifetime. Even more concerning is the eroding level of trust that the American public appears to have with its institutions, with its media outlets, and, worst of all, with each other. Like everyone that reads the news or looks at Facebook, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of information thrown at us daily by a movement that feeds off outrage from all sides.

My mind is still processing what happened, what’s happening, and where we’re headed. To some extent, I have managed to turn off the noise because I think the barrage of news (and tweets) is in some manner intentional and there must be a way to be as proactive as we have been reactive. It could be that all of this chaos contains the seeds of its own destruction, but I remember hearing this back in 2015, so I am trying to retain a healthy sense of pessimism and instead assume that it will persist for some time going forward.

Justifications for restrictive policies on immigration appear to manifest themselves in two forms: thwarting a security threat or reclaiming our sovereignty to reduce a burden on an already beleaguered nation-state that doesn’t work the same way it once did. When people feel anxious, they retreat into their “tribe” and resort to blaming. Nativism takes root. Ethnic nationalism increases and policies that keep foreigners out (or kick them out) find the support they need to succeed politically. We’re seeing this play out worldwide.

Most concerning about the policies being discussed (slowing immigration, deporting undocumented residents, decreasing our international affairs budget, and increasing our defense budget with no clear strategic purpose), is that doing so would be turning our backs on a part of the world that is increasingly impossible to ignore, not just because they outnumber us, but also because they are the key to progress. By not constructively engaging with nations in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, we are cutting ourselves off from a vast source of human capital, from populations that are smart, innovative, and resourceful. It’s no coincidence that the most innovative places in the United States are also its most diverse places, or that the smartest are increasingly children of immigrants. Strength and creativity stems from diversity and, to me, it’s abundantly clear that the more we try to insulate ourselves from the world, the less likely we will continue to be the innovative hub of the planet.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening with diversity being viewed as a threat to thwart rather than a challenge to confront or, better yet, an untapped strength to exploit.

What is happening right now in some ways reminds me of issues I grappled with internally as a Peace Corps volunteer. There are structural things that are increasingly being revealed to us through our politics that we have never grappled with before as a nation. That is, who are we and what does it mean to be an American? Why are some of us Mexican-American, African-American, Native-American, while others are simply American? These are questions Peace Corps volunteers are forced to grapple with on a daily basis and I think inevitably, you begin to think of America as something more than a bordered, homogeneous society restrained by geography or defined by a single, static cultural condition. It’s much more dynamic than that, especially now that many populations increasingly live in networks that reject borders (e.g. Facebook, ISIS, etc.).

Instead, you begin to think of America, first and foremost, as an idea – an idea that can be felt around the world, an idea that infects people and pulls them inside, makes them pick up and leave to settle in the place where that idea was born. It also inspires them to lead efforts at home in an attempt to emulate that same concept. In Peace Corps, I met “Americans” who had never traveled outside Nicaragua and probably never will. I can’t exactly describe why I got this feeling, but something jumped out at me that felt like a brotherhood or a kinship that resided in some shared dream for progress, acceptance, equality – values that transcend nationality and are rooted in something much more fundamental to us. They’re the Enlightenment values that underpin our entire order.

Part of the problem and the challenge, I think, is that America is still articulating that idea and it’s being stressed in a way that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. It’s being tested especially as we grapple with terrorism as well as the changes brought about by globalization and technology. And because of this, more than ever, we must ask ourselves, who are we? Until we answer that, I’m afraid the partisanship we’re experiencing will only continue. Until we answer that, a vision of banning people, building walls, and attacking with bomb strikes will persist. Identity gives us intention and purpose, which we’ve lost with the growing integration of market economies. A lot of people feel great, more connected than ever – especially college-educated Americans living in cities. At the same time, a lot of people feel left out and forgotten, overlooked by a prideful progressive movement that seems to be leaving them in the dust. I’m not saying these emotions are entirely based in reality, but whether we like it or not, feelings can have a profound impact on elections.

President Obama began to acknowledge this trend towards the end of 2016 when he said:

“The same forces of globalization and technology and integration that have delivered so much progress, have created so much wealth, have also revealed deep fault lines … that this global integration is increasing the tendencies towards inequality, both between nations and within nations, at an accelerated pace”.

This was somewhat visible in Nicaragua, where the disparities between well-connected, accessible cities and remote, hard to reach corners were apparent. In his acceptance speech of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke about how poverty in America is in some ways more frustrating than in less developed nations, because the poor in America know they live in the wealthiest nation in the world. Whereas poverty in poor nations is a “shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment.” Fifty years later, as economic policies have reduced trade barriers and opened up financial markets to some of the world’s poorest nations, I question how true that remains. Wealth is becoming more concentrated for many nations these days.

But as vile and polemical as things have become in our political discourse, I am so happy to be back in the country I love. There is nowhere in the world where the values I espouse are more alive and more protected than here. Right now, I feel like the process of addressing the challenges posed by migration, global poverty, and an economy increasingly rooted in service rather than manufacturing is merely playing out before our eyes, and a smart and thoughtful dialogue is bound to come along – I just can’t say when.

One thing I do know is that, more than ever, the ordinary actions of private citizens are extremely important.

In an attempt to show gratitude for the radical kindness that was shown to us as foreigners from the day we set foot in Nicaragua to the day we caught our bus out, I have started fundraising for an international aid organization called Help Educate, which was started in 2004 by returned Peace Corps volunteers. The organization gives scholarships and leadership training to rural Nicaraguans pursuing higher education. As development director, I’m excited to jump in and continue supporting students in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our website: http://helpeducate.org/.

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The bus to La Esperanza.

Entrevista con el escritor Sergio Ramírez

Sergio Ramírez Mercado es un novelista y cuentista nicaragüense. También sirvió como vicepresidente del país desde 1985 hasta 1990 bajo Daniel Ortega durante su primer término. Hace meses, tuve la gran fortuna de poder hablar con él en su hogar en Managua. Hablamos de su carrera y sus pensamientos sobre el estado de su país y el futuro. 

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Sergio en su casa en Managua, 2016.

 CS: Tal vez usted puede empezar al decirnos sobre su historia y su carrera.

SM: Bueno. Yo nací en Masatepe. Es un pueblo del pacifico, en el departamento de Masaya, un pueblo muy tranquilo en el infancia. Creo que hubo 4 mil habitantes. Ahora Masatepe se ha vuelto muy ruidoso. En ese tiempo era tranquilo, pacifico.

Mi madre era maestra de secundaría, profesora de literatura. Mi padre era un comerciante. Tenía una tienda frente al plaza. Yo fui a escuela en Masatepe, también a la escuela secundaria. Me gradué la escuela secundaría en 1959. Entonces me fui a estudiar en la carrera de leyes en la universidad en León. Entonces a partir de allí, nunca regresaría a vivir en Masatepe. Tenía mi carrera en León y luego me fui a Costa Rica por muchos anos. En Costa Rica, yo trabaje con el consejo superior universitario centroamericano que es un organismo de las universidades de la región. Me quede en Costa Rica hasta el año 1969. Vivimos años en Alemania, en Berlín Occidental, con el programa de artistas residentes. Tenía una beca para escribir una novela. Luego, el triunfo de revolución, yo regresé a Nicaragua con mi familia. Me había casado en 1964, el mismo año que me gradué y el mismo año que me fui a Costa Rica. Mi esposa es de León, se llama Gertrudis Guerrero, y tenemos tres hijos. Nacieron en Costa Rica todos y ahora tenemos muchos nietos.

CS: Que bueno. ¿Y que hizo en León?

SM: En León yo empecé a escribir cuentos para hacer mi carrera literaria. Fundamos una revista literaria se llamaba Ventana. Al mismo tiempo yo comencé a participar en política, obligado por las circunstancias. En Masatepe, lo político llega muy poco. Era muy tranquilo. Pero el centro de la resistencia política estaba in León por la universidad y los estudiantes. El año 1969 fue un año muy agitado por que fue el año del triunfo de la revolución cubana. Empezaba en Nicaragua cuando el gobierno había sido derrocado. Por que no hubo Somoza, hubo muchos movimientos armados aquí. Venían de Honduras y Costa Rica. Y ese tenía un gran impacto en los calles de León con el movimiento de estudiantes. Ocurrió que en julio de 1979, el ejercito de Somoza disparo contra una de las manifestaciones. Yo participaba y mataron a cuatro de mis compañeros. Vivieron unas 60. Esa tarde 3 de julio 1959 fue, para mi, decisiva. Cuando yo me comprometí que era necesario destellar la dictadura de Nicaragua. Al mismo tiempo yo seguí haciendo mi carrera de escritor. Me gradué de abogado pero nunca ha sido mi profesión. Por que quizás yo nunca pude poner la atención de ser un abogado.

CS: ¿Qué le inspiro hacerse escritor? ¿Fue algo de su niñez o en la universidad?

SM: En Nicaragua todo el mundo empieza escribiendo poesía. Yo escribí algunas poesías pero muy pronto me di cuenta de que no era una poeta sino un narrador. Tenía las necesidades de contar. Quería contar historias. Este es como descubre mi vocación. Empecé a escribir cuentos principalmente en 1959 y escribí mis primeros cuentos que publicaron después en la revista Ventana.

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Sergio Ramirez (izquierda) como vicepresidente posando con Fidel Castro (medio) y Daniel Ortega (derecho), 1985. 

CS: ¿Qué puede recomendar a los voluntarios que quiere leer y aprender mas sobre Nicaragua?

SM: Por su puesto, es necesario leer Rubén Darío por que el es el autor mas conocido en todo Nicaragua. También el era un autor de cuentos. También hay un libro aquí que es muy interesante que se llama Nicaragüense de Pablo Antonio Cuadra y esta disponible en todos de las librerías. Es sobre el carácter de Nicaragua. Como son los nicaragüense socialmente, culturalmente. Ese libro es muy útil para quien que quiera aprender sobre Nicaragua. Es un libro breve. La antología de Ernesto Cardenal es muy importante y también esta disponible en las librerías.

CS: ¿Cómo es la cultura de lectura en Nicaragua en general?

SM: Yo creo que hay interés por la lectura. Es un país donde hay muchos lectores potenciales, gente que le gusta teatro y la música. Es un pueblo cultural. Si se abra las oportunidades, la gente va. El problema es que las oportunidades casi no existen, o son pocas. Entonces en el país hay muy pocas bibliotecas publicas. Las bibliotecas del colegios públicos son pobre. Me imagino que la biblioteca por ejemplo en Nueva Guinea tiene pocos libros.

CS: Si, es muy pequeño. De hecho, solamente lo he visitado una vez. Pero en general, muchos voluntarios están tratando de promover la idea de leer por diversión a través de sus proyectos en sus comunidades.

SM: Si, por eso le decía que es importante abrir las oportunidades. Allí en Masatepe tenemos Fundación Luisa Mercado, el nombre de mi madre, una biblioteca publica. Allí tenemos una escuela de música y una biblioteca, mas de seis mil tipos. Además de la biblioteca tenemos seis computadoras. La gente llega prestar libros. Los estudiantes van allí a prestar libros o hacer sus tareas. Tiene todo el acceso de Internet. Llegan a hacer sus investigaciones. Entonces, es un cuestión de oportunidades. Si abra las oportunidades, la gente va, ¿no? Tenemos películas que no tienen las cines comerciales, y tenemos conciertos de música y charlas.

Yo creo que en un lugar como Nueva Guinea, ustedes pueden tener un numero de libros que no sea tan grande. Pero prestar los libros digitales – este sería un gran oportunidad. Tres o cuatro pantallas o lo que sea.  Entonces falta una iniciativa de gobierno. Es necesario por que los libros en Nicaragua no son baratos. Un libro impreso en país puede valer como 6 o 8 dólares, y todavía alguien puede comprarlo. Pero un libro que viene a México de España, cuesta 20 dólares. Ese libro no esta en la casa de la gente. Entonces un libro digital – ese me parece una solución.

CS: ¿En su mente, que puede hacer el país para abrir las oportunidades?

SM: Creo que en primer lugar este país es muy deseoso de entrar en relación con otros países. Tu has comentado que aquí no hay ninguna rechazo o una reversa con alguien que viene a ayudar, como tu. La gente abre la puerta de su casa y apoya. Eso para mi es muy importante. La receptividad que la gente tiene por cualquier organismo como Cuerpo de Paz o cualquier otra que venga a buscar oportunidades para ayudar es importante. Y creo que la programa mas efectivo de cooperación son los que se quedan en las pequeñas comunidades.

CS: ¿Por qué dice eso?

SM: Por que cuando es posible entrar en las vidas de las comunidades, me parece que están viendo los problemas reales o esta recibiendo la mayor receptividad. Por que hay muchas programas nacionalidades que se mueven muy burocráticos. Pero cuando tu vaya a un lugar como Nueva Guinea o Masatepe te dará cuenta que allí esta la vida de la gente. Te dará cuenta quien esta aprendiendo o quien cambio su vida para aprender un idioma. Por que inglés es esencial en la vida social y en Nicaragua hay un gran déficit del inglés. El mercado para las Call Centers es limitado principalmente por que la afecta de gente que sabe inglés es poca. El inglés que enseñamos en las secundarias no es suficiente. Necesitamos mas materias. No es culpa de los profesores.

Es muy útil saber hablar inglés. Alguien que habla muy bien el inglés puede encontrar mas trabajo. Pro eso te decía que estar allí aprende mas los cooperantes y los voluntarios. Entonces, ustedes pueden cambiar la vida de la gente. Cuando tu te vayas y dejaste a alguien que se puede entender el inglés ya has cambiado la vida por que ya va a ganarse el pan de otra manera. Creo que el gran problema del desarrollo es la educación, tener el conocimiento de hacer algo.

CS: ¿Como es el estado de educación en Nicaragua?

SM: No ha cambiado mucho. Lo que crece es el numero de estudiantes, por que crece la población. Los problemas básicos de la educación sigue siendo lo mismo. La cantidad de niños o jóvenes que abandona la escuela, la falta de la preparación de los profesores, la situación es las aulas, la falta de los laboratorios. Son los problemas de la pobreza. Se necesitaría duplicar la cantidad el dinero que se invierten en educación.

CS: ¿Cómo se veré Nicaragua en el futuro?

SM: El problema es a donde va el beneficio crecimiento. Si el beneficio va a la gente rica, se hace mas rica. O el crecimiento esta produciendo mas gente que va a la clase media, esta creciendo mas gente – pero yo pienso que no. Pienso que los ricos van a ser mas rico. Los pobres sigue siendo mas pobre.

CS: ¿Qué tendría que cambiar para que mas reciben los beneficios?

SM: Tendría que ver un cambio estructural. Ni siquiera estamos hablando de socialismo. Simplemente difundir la riqueza. Por mi los dispuestos por el gasto publico. No es nada complicada.

CS: Bueno. Creo que este es todo el tiempo que usted tenía. Muchísimas gracias por compartir un poco de su historia y sus pensamientos del desarrollo de Nicaragua. Fue un placer para mi hablar contigo un rato.

Esperanza Computer Library Project Status: Closed

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The good thing about an end-date on Peace Corps service is that it forces you to get stuff done.

The city we served in is isolated, but it’s still fairly urban compared to what I imagined when I first signed up for Peace Corps. By working at a school located 30 minutes outside Nueva Guinea, at least for a few days during the week, I was able to satisfy my interest in working in a small rural community.

Last week, my counterpart Freddy and I wrapped up the project we’ve been working on for about a year: developing a computer library in La Esperanza’s only school. Together we were awarded a $2,200 USD grant by non-profit World Connect to purchase equipment (books, computers, printer), train teachers in computer use, and implement activities to promote reading.

Below are some pictures documenting our progress.

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After some early community assessment work including conversations with school leadership and meetings with parents about deficits in community access to resources, my counterpart and I decided to build a library using a room previously used as a storage closet.

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A cyber located in Nueva Guinea facilitated the computer purchase, software set-up, and computer training of teachers.

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Students helped prepare the room by cleaning, painting, and installing outlets for the computers. They also raised about $200 USD locally from parents and community members.

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On September 29, 2016, we had an official opening ceremony for the library. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Education’s delegate for Nueva Guinea attended and promised to help support the project by assigning a librarian.

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Books in English and Spanish were donated to the project by Quest for Peace and private individuals.

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We promoted reading at the school and encouraged teachers to use the books to do the same. Fortunately, Michaela and I are being replaced by a new volunteer that arrives in November, who will work with the project leader to further integrate the new resources into the school’s curriculum.

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On October 04, 2016, thirteen teachers from the primary and secondary school received a full day of basic computer training. In the coming weeks, my counterpart will be organizing follow up trainings so teachers can continue building their skill set.

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As of today, the library is officially open for learning.

Privileged Mobility and America’s Second Best Idea

By Conor Sanchez

There’s a young university student in my community named Alvaro who loves practicing English with me every chance he gets. On campus, in the park, on the street corner – wherever. As soon as he spots me, he makes a b-line in my direction to chat.

His English is decent but he sometimes says things that are awkward. I remember feeling uncomfortable our first few interactions, but as I got used to him, I realized he was merely exploring the boundaries of the language by practicing the edgier phrases he had learned in American films.

There was one day recently, however, where his thoughts carried a lot more weight than our usual banter about English grammar rules. This time we were talking mostly in Spanish, having a conversation about travel. He said he wanted to go to the United States. New York, maybe, or Chicago…whatever. He said it didn’t matter. He said he also wanted to go to Europe and naturally I asked what part? Again, it didn’t matter. I pressed him by saying every country is super different from one another. “Which one do you want to visit?”

He shook his head. “No, no, no, Conor. You still don’t get it,” he said to me. “When we talk about going to Europe or the United States, it doesn’t matter what part. All that matters is that we get there.”

I suddenly knew what he was talking about. He continued, “In a few months, you’ll leave from here and start your life. Whatever you came here to accomplish, you did it. Now you’ll go home, study, become a doctor, lawyer, whatever, and raise a family. I have to stay and the opportunities here just aren’t the same.”

I should clarify that his tone wasn’t resentful. It was simply a matter of fact. As much as my life has been transformed to live here, there will always be at least one glaring discrepancy in our situations: after two years, I go home and return to a standard of living that exists for a very small percentage of the world. Or as he said it, vos podes salir del clavo (roughly translated as “you can escape the problem”).

The list of privileges I enjoy in terms of citizenship, class, gender, and race is enormous, but my privileged mobility in particular is something I’ve devoted a lot of thought to in my time abroad. What complex configurations have deemed it ok for me to live here for a given amount of time, but simultaneously set strict rules for when and for what purposes Nicaraguans can live in the United States? 

The lines drawn by “first world privilege” is something every Peace Corps Volunteer hopes to at least blur in their two years of service. We integrate into a community. We work alongside local leaders to solve issues. We earn a local salary. Inevitably, however, we come to accept the fact that there is only so much blurring one can do. The fact is, we come from two very different worlds. This acknowledgement has been expressed by Peace Corps Volunteers since the agency’s foundation.

In 1969, Moritz Thomson published a memoir describing his experience living as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. He called it Living Poor: a Peace Corps Chronicle. To this day, it is considered one of the best memoirs on the Peace Corps experience. In the end, Thomson describes his realization that despite his best efforts, he would never be accepted as a true member of his community, where most people sustain themselves on rice and plantains, while he could hop on a bus to the capital to get his fill of gourmet meats and foreign delicacies.

Michaela and I felt the same way when we escaped to catch a movie at a fancy shopping mall where prices are so high, they’re listed in American dollars. Or when our parents visited us. Or the fact that if one of us had a medical emergency, we would be taken to a state-of-the-art hospital in Managua. But it is especially poignant now as we enter the last few weeks of our service.

My take away from his book, and from my own experience here, is that we simply can’t flee the privileges we were born with – nor should we. We are who we are and there is no point in feeling shame or guilt for things we can’t control. Besides, doing that only prevents us from engaging in productive dialogue. What is important, however, is that we approach others with humility and recognize that the world treats everyone differently. These unique experiences matter if we want to help address systemic issues, both large and small.

I have leapt further outside of my shoes than I ever have before in my life, while simultaneously realizing the extent to which I can do that. I have gained a perspective that I hope will better guide the way I understand those who grew up different from me, even within my own country where skin color, gender, and other non-merit based factors continue to play a role in determining one’s success. I’ve learned that to have an impact, you have to be willing to give up at least some of your privilege and in my time here that ended up being an American salary (with a college degree), many first-world amenities, as well as the luxury of being able to travel around whenever and however I wished.

Today, I am probably the closest I’ll ever be to seeing the United States as an outsider from the “Global South.” Despite its imperfections and ongoing efforts to live up to the ideals it set out to espouse in 1776, I see the hope it represents for the rest of the world. I see a place where cultures mix and intertwine to create a truly unique national identity that is based not on one’s ethnicity, race, religion, or language, but rather on one’s values, ideals, and work-ethic. Like my friend Alvaro, I see a place where people can get ahead. I see John Winthrop’s ‘shining city upon a hill.’

I see these things and I wish they weren’t confined to national borders.

The truth is, I don’t want my friend to “make it” to the United States. Not because I don’t empathize with his motivations or that we wouldn’t benefit from having him; making it to the United States has been a ticket out of poverty for millions who work hard and the U.S. owes much of its greatness to immigrants. He knows it. I know it. But what he doesn’t know is how challenging that journey would be. Assuming he would immigrate without proper documentation or financial resources, the trip northward would be extremely dangerous. And as much as I wish things were different, he would likely face prejudice and even exploitation for his origin, skin color, and language level depending on where he ended up.

For many Latin Americans, such risks far outweigh the costs of staying put (e.g. refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), but my friend isn’t one of those people. Nicaragua is a stable country. It’s a safe country. Alternatives do exist and the progress being made economically is undeniable. As a teacher, I have seen students study hard to achieve scholarship opportunities. I’ve seen fellow teachers work weekends and evenings to earn promotions and professional development opportunities. For smart, talented people like these individuals to start leaving would be detrimental to their community’s progress.

And yet, I am not blind to how comparatively more difficult it is for many Nicaraguans to transcend their social and geographic isolation without risking their lives. As an educator here, one of my biggest challenges has been balancing the impulse to keep my expectations high while also acknowledging that, as a foreigner, I really have no idea what it is like to grow up in this environment. No matter how long I stay here, I will never be able to fully speak to that experience because it hasn’t been my own.

When I came to Nicaragua, I had no delusions of solving big issues. On the contrary, I expected to learn a lot about why the field of development is so challenging. I wanted to contribute to their nationwide effort to become bilingual because if you can speak English here, you can get a solid middle-class job. I hoped, at a minimum, that I would meet individuals with strong roots in the community, who had a desire to change lives and could use some help in that endeavor.

Those individuals ended up being local teachers with whom I work closely on various projects and who understand the experience of getting ahead here better than any outsider ever could. One of them, Bayron, grew up in a small village 7 hours from the capital, learned English despite missing two years of school as a teenager working on coffee farms in Costa Rica, and hasn’t left the country since. He now teaches English at a secondary school during the week and a university on the weekend.  

Early on, I wanted to throw all my support behind this person, do all that I could to help him achieve his goals. One day, he told me he would like to do what I’m doing, only in the United States. He could improve his English, gain invaluable experience teaching in an American classroom, and come back to Nicaragua with a wealth of knowledge to share. To do that, only a few hyper-selective programs exist, most of which are run through the U.S. Embassy. I promised to do everything I could to help.

In 2015, Bayron got an interview, a huge achievement in and of itself, to be considered for a Fulbright scholarship to pursue his masters in the States but in the end he wasn’t chosen. “I’ll try again next year,” he said. This year, he has an opportunity to present in El Salvador at an English teachers conference. It will be his first time out of the country since he worked on a coffee farm in Costa Rica and this alone sets him apart from teachers in our region. A few months ago, he was 1 of 15 picked out 150 applicants to take the TOEFL exam, again to be considered for the Fulbright. As he left the testing center, he texted me, “Will try next year if I can’t get it now. At least I have the experience of the TOEFL.”

If it’s not clear already, Bayron is incredibly motivated to study overseas and I have no doubt that, if his determination persists, he’ll get to go. But the point I’m trying to make is that this is how I want Nicaraguans to travel to other nations. Not to “make it” as in the case of Alvaro, but rather, to meet it on equal footing, where they can expand their worldview, learn about a different culture, and return to their country to put their knowledge into action. This is the kind of movement I hope to see occur more often between our countries.

I want Bayron to reap the professional benefits of living and working in a foreign country for the same reasons I hope more Americans do it; to gain the dividends of being able to make connections among seemingly disparate ideas – an ability that multicultural engagement has been shown to cultivate. This not only empowers us individually, and not merely monetarily (although that may very well be an outcome), but it also ends up helping our home communities by adding a more open-minded and sophisticated voice to public discourse. In short, Bayron’s experiences abroad would be a significant net gain for his community as a whole.

One day, while enjoying a late morning snack of tajadas and queso fresco at the school cafetín, I tried to explain all of this to Bayron, expressing my frustration that the present system doesn’t allow him to get out more. He nodded and thought in silence. After a while he said, “That’s the dream. But for now, you and Michaela are here and that’s good.”

We’re here and that’s good. I let that sink in for a while before deciding, it is good. Michaela and I have made life-long friends here, from colleagues to neighbors, from students to parents – many of whom had never met an American before, much less Jewish and half-Irish, half-Latino ones. We have contributed to their efforts to improve their community’s education by securing resources from the States to build a computer lab and develop an existing library. We’ve painted two world map murals. We’ve trained dozens of teachers in making their classrooms more communicative and their students to be better critical thinkers. We’ve organized camps and other programs for youth that focused on leadership, gender equality, and diversity.

At some point, I have to take a step back from examining the discrepancies that have filled my head throughout my service and instead, just be grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with people I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. For that, I owe a great deal of gratitude to the people of Nicaragua, who accept us into their homes on a daily basis, as well as to the American people whose tax dollars sent us to work here. I had traveled a fair amount before working in Nicaragua, but I had never been introduced to the world quite like this.

Which brings me to my final realization: we’re lucky to have an agency like the U.S. Peace Corps. America’s national parks may have been the “best idea we ever had,” but the Peace Corps is a close second in my mind. Wallace Stegner, who coined that phrase in regards to our decision to preserve land and make it open to the public, could have just as easily been talking about volunteers: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” That’s especially true in light of the U.S. swimming team’s nightmarish behavior during the Rio Olympics.

Peace Corps fights exclusion by bringing Americans to remote, isolated corners of the planet. It shows others a side of the U.S. they don’t see often enough and yet, to me, are things that define us – diversity, ingenuity, and empathy. At the same time, we get a chance to see some of the very same qualities in other nations.

In trying to explain our mission, Sargent Shriver, the agency’s founder and first director, once said,

“It goes beyond politics and national rivalries to reach the deepest hopes of man. It is a working model, a microcosm, a small society representing the kind of world we want our children to live in.”

This microcosm takes people from vastly different cultures and brings them face to face in a dramatic, sometimes jarring, experience. As a result, you don’t end up seeing the world in the Peace Corps. You don’t visit the world. You don’t travel the world. And you definitely don’t save it.

You meet the world. And against all odds, it takes you in.

An Interview with Stephen Kinzer

Va Pue Magazine

514951During the Sandinista-Contras civil war in the 1980s, journalist and author Stephen Kinzer reported from the front lines for The New York Times. His experiences, observations, and analysis were published in his book Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. Since then, his work has not only become an authoritative account of one of the nation’s darkest decades, but it also serves as essential reading for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of the nation as a whole.
In April, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Kinzer via Skype from my site in Nueva Guinea. The electricity was spotty the entire day, making me fear we’d have to reschedule. Fortunately, it held steady and we were able discuss his time here, how much Nicaragua has changed, and where it is heading.

Stephen Kinzer (SK): Hi, there! So where are you calling from?

Conor Sanchez (CS): Hello! I’m calling from Nueva Guinea.

SK: Wow!…

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Are we playing basketball or soccer?

By Conor Sanchez

In a recent episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell offers an analogy for how we should think about society. Basically, he says there are two kinds of people in this world: those who think we’re playing soccer and those who think we’re playing basketball.

In basketball, a winning strategy is to focus on one or two superstars instead of the weakest players. The reason being that one awesome player can conceivably carry the ball across the entire court to deliver more baskets for the team. In soccer, a better strategy is to focus on the weakest players to ensure the best player occasionally gets the ball and scores a goal. Even if your team has the greatest soccer player in the world, his or her success depends on the other players much more than it would if they were playing basketball.

Gladwell uses this analogy to criticize a trend in philanthropy that started when a man named Hank Rowan gave $100 million to a little-known university called Glassboro State College, which at the time was almost broke with just a little over $700,000 in its endowment. His actions inspired a wave of donations. From July 1992 until 2000, 20 gifts of $100 million were given out and as of spring 2016, 87 gifts of $100 million or more have been given to higher education. Sounds pretty great, right? The problem is that almost all of the other gifts after Rowan’s actions went to wealthy prestigious schools.

Gladwell’s viewpoint can be summed in his tweeted response to a billionaire’s decision to donate $400 million to Harvard University: “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!”

As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think of my own experience here in rural Nicaragua, where I have worked in grassroots development for two years. Upon arrival I was given assignments to work at two different schools (a secondary school and a university). Although I was obligated to devote a a minimum number of hours to each school, I was left with ample time to allocate as I saw fit.

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My students in La Esperanza, a tiny community 15 kilometers from Nueva Guinea.

This was tough. How was I supposed to know where my extra time would be the most valuable? To borrow from economics theory, I wanted to avoid reaching the point of diminishing returns, where my increased presence yielded lower incremental per-unit returns, particularly if I could be devoting myself to areas where my increased presence would lead to higher incremental returns. In other words, where would I be most impactful?

For a while, I simply devoted my time to those that expected it most. My small rural school, located about 15 kilometers outside the city, practically rolled out the red carpet for me on the days I taught. I was the first foreigner to ever teach there and they seemed, frankly, grateful that I even showed up.

The university, on the other hand, always gave me the impression that I wasn’t there enough. At first, I thought, well, I understand; they have the strongest English department in the city. They have access to incredible resources, like the internet, computers, and books in English. The brightest and most motivated students attend their school. Why wouldn’t I devote all my free time here?

Overtime, the answer to that question became increasingly apparent. The school had more than enough to work with and improve upon. I was the third Peace Corps volunteer to work there in four years. They had over ten fluent, full-time English teachers. I was definitely helping, but again, the question of how much and relative to what kept coming up. With only so much free time to spare, one day I realized my time would be much better spent lending additional support to the places that don’t have access to as many resources as the university.

Gradually, I began to peel myself away. I started an after-school English Club at my rural school, where students asked permission from their parents to miss a few hours working on their family farm to learn a second language. At the same school, I developed and received a grant to build a library equipped with computers, a printer, and books in English and Spanish. I picked up a new teacher to work with at a different secondary school in the city. I helped my co-teachers find professional development opportunities and the resources necessary to afford them.

In time, I felt my level of productivity begin to rise. Looking back, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish these things if I had devoted all my spare time to the university. Undoubtedly, I would have other accomplishments to reflect on, however, I am not sure they would have been as impactful. I pivoted to begin working with teachers who, on the whole, taught a larger segment of the population, thereby amplifying the impact of my added presence in the classroom. There was also a huge disparity in the resources available to students who lived just 15 kilometers apart. Adding a library to their school will give them skills they wouldn’t otherwise get unless they could afford to go to college in the city.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a perfect example of what Gladwell was talking about in his podcast. The university in my city isn’t exactly comparable to a wealthy university in the United States. But there is a lesson learned here that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. That is, in philanthropic efforts, we shouldn’t ignore the weakest players on the team. Or another way to put it, we should find the least best player and help them get better.

We naturally gravitate towards our superstars, whether it’s in a classroom, a company, or a nation. And sometimes this works. Nurturing and empowering a leader with unique abilities and talents can have a trickle-down effect that helps the whole team succeed.

However, more often than not we tend to underestimate the effectiveness of the opposite strategy. That by giving additional attention and support to weaker players , whether it’s in the form of donations, tax dollars, tax breaks, or our time, we can help increase the competitiveness of the team as a whole. And what it comes down to, I believe, is whether you think we’re playing soccer or basketball.

I have to agree with Gladwell’s conclusion that, for the most part, we are playing a good old-fashioned game of soccer.

Nicaraguan Cities And Their American Counterparts

By Conor Sanchez

In the nearly two years I’ve lived here, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of Nicaragua. In a place roughly the geographic size of Arkansas, you might not think that’s a big deal, but once you factor in the infrastructural challenges and the high costs of traveling (on a Peace Corps volunteer’s budget), it’s actually a big feat.

During trips to Nicaraguan cities, I can’t help but draw comparisons to cities I have traveled to in the United States. Something in its history, its climate, or in the way outsiders view it consistently reminds me of some place I’ve already visited. Relying on my familiarity with home, I started to make a list of places that I think match the characteristics of cities in the United States, and in doing so, I feel like I understand the country a little better. By drawing comparisons in how one part fits within the context of the whole, I start to see why a certain city gives off a particular vibe or garners a certain reputation.

Think about smaller social groups for a minute, such as an office or a sports team. Everyone has the funny guy, the outgoing one who organizes the parties, or the serious one that gets everyone back on track, etc. Likewise, every country has its economic powerhouse, its conservative culture, its alternative scene. Every country has cities with strong local identities and I’m obsessed with analyzing them, especially as I feel more and more acquainted with Nicaraguan culture. Whereas when I first arrived, every city seemed pretty similar to me, I now notice drastic differences from cities just a few miles from one another.

It made me wonder if a Nicaraguan reacts the same way when they visit the U.S. I like imagining what a Nicaraguan might feel like if they were plopped down in the middle of Nebraska, which would obviously give them a whole different perspective on the U.S. than if they were placed in Miami. Am I having as distinct of an experience living in Nueva Guinea – not in Managua or San Juan Del Sur?  In some respects, I’d say – yes – it’s that different.

In any case, below is the list I’ve come up with. I’m sure plenty will disagree and no doubt each of them requires some stretch of the imagination, but bear with me. I do give my reasoning, but mostly these are just based on gut feelings. I start with the city I live in – Nueva Guinea.

Nueva Guinea – Salt Lake City

IMG_2377Just a little over 50 years ago, Nueva Guinea was a thick rainforest with few inhabitants. Then, evangelical Christians from the north began to travel East looking for a place to settle where they could build an agricultural colony rooted in their faith. That place ended up being Nueva Guinea, which they originally dubbed “Luz en La Selva.” Today, evangelical Christianity remains the dominant religion here and it plays a big part in the city’s culture. The Israeli flag – which for them represents the land of God more than a Jewish sovereign nation – adorns hundreds of car windows and storefronts. Few people celebrate La Purísima, a catholic celebration that takes place in December. The catholic church on the south side of town was only built around ten years ago. This city’s history reminds me a lot of Salt Lake City, which was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and other mormons traveling west in mid-19th century seeking a secluded area to safely practice their religion, far away from the violence and the persecution they experienced in the east. At that time, it was the Wild West. This time, it’s Nicaragua’s Wild East.

Leon – Boston

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These two cities are about the same age if you don’t count Leon’s original location, which was abandoned after the nearby volcano erupted. Both of them definitely have some of the strongest local identities I’ve ever encountered, to the point where you feel nervous rooting for any other sports team but their own. They have a fighting spirit that tells others, we are who are – deal with it. Both cities have the oldest (and perhaps the most prestigious) higher education institutions in their respective countries. Both served as the epicenters of their respective revolutions. If you want a textbook history of the U.S., go to Boston. The same goes for Leon if want to understand Nicaragua.

Granada – New York City

Granada Door 6What New York City is to Boston, Granada is Leon. The only difference is that the historical rivalry between Leon and Granada is a hundred years older (NYC was settled in 1624, while Granada was settled in 1524). Both cities are the number one most-visited places in their respective countries. You really can’t visit the U.S. without seeing New York. The same goes for Granada in terms of visiting Nicaragua. Granada also has some of the best restaurants in the country. After dining at one of them, you can go on a horse carriage ride in its central park.

Matagalpa – San Francisco
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The coldest winter I ever spent in Nicaragua was a week in Matagalpa during the summer. Just looking at Matagalpa conjures up images of San Francisco. It’s the only place I’ve actually worn a jacket here. It’s hilly. Walking around town, you’re bound to find yourself walking up an unfathomably steep road, where I hate to imagine what would happen to me if I was driving a car with a stick-shift. I would say it’s one of the more fachenta (a Nica word used to describe something fancy or flashy) places to live in Nicaragua, which also puts it in the same league as San Francisco. There aren’t any beat poets hanging around, but Carlos Fonseca, a Sandinista revolutionary and intellectual who was born there, kind of looks like one. In my opinion, it’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in Nicaragua, which also makes it a great companion to San Francisco.

Juigalpa – Fort Worth

IMG_2091Fort Worth is considered the most cowboy city in the United States. Aside from being stranded there after missing a connecting flight, I really have no idea if that’s true but I’ll take people at their word. I can say for sure, however, that Juigalpa is the most cowboy city in Nicaragua.  This is the heart of cattle country. If the department of Chontales were a U.S. state it would definitely be Texas. Arid, rugged, and full of independent-minded Nicaraguans, Juigalpa is a place that takes Hípico (a traditional horse parade that pretty much every major Nicaraguan city has) to a whole new level. On weekends, ranchers and farmers fill a steakhouse called La Hacienda and the city’s fiestas patronales features bull-riding, rodeos, and horseback games. Neither Fort Worth nor Juigalpa boast a ton of tourist traffic, which make them fairly authentic places – what you see is what you get.

Bluefields – New Orleans

New Orleans might be my favorite American city and Bluefields is my favorite Nicaraguan city, so it’s no wonder they remind me of each other. One is known for its spicy, singular cuisine reflecting its history as a melting pot of French, African and American cultures. The other is know as heart of Creole culture, famed for its distinct music, colorful dances and delicious food. Both cities feel a little forgotten about on the outside. Both have been hit hard by hurricanes that nearly wiped them off the map and certainly changed life forever for many of their residents (Bluefields with Mitch in 1998 and New Orleans with Katrina in 2005). Finally, although unique in their significance obviously, both cities host an annual city-wide celebration that send dancers and musicians through the city’s various neighborhoods.

Managua – Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

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Managua is the capital of Nicaragua and the seat of the nation’s government, which makes it an obvious counterpart to D.C. The president lives here. Laws get passed here (theoretically, in the case of D.C.).  It was chosen to be the capital as a compromise to avoid conflict between rival cities Granada and Leon, which isn’t unlike our decision to make D.C. the capital anticipating that southern politicians would resist placement too far north in New York or Philadelphia. What stops me from considering it a true D.C. counterpart is their lack of urban resemblance. Managua is a huge, sprawling mess of a city. Public transportation is terrible and reaching your destination on foot is almost impossible. Earthquakes occur often (one so violent it flattened the city in 1972). On the positive side, Managua has virtually everything – shopping malls, movie theaters, fancy grocery stores, theater, nightlife, parks, museums, and a strong economy. For all those reasons, I say it also compares with Los Angeles.

San Juan Del Sur – Las Vegas

Very little to explain here. San Juan Del Sur is party central. It’s pretty popular among backpackers, especially young Europeans traveling on their gap year. It also has great surfing. South of city you can see turtles hatch from eggs and crawl their way to sea. But mostly, you go here if you want to party.

Chinandega – Phoenix

It’s hot. It’s crazy hot. Outside of the fact that both these cities are known to be deadly hot, I’m not sure they really have much in common. One is known for resorts and golf courses, while the other is known for sugarcane production and a bus called Bus Pelon (bald bus) that gives tours of the city.

Bilwi – Bismark

In short, few people visit this place. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!

Here’s a map so you can the geographic location of some of the aforementioned cities (and a few I didn’t write about):

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Six Ways I’ve Changed After 76 Days in Site

By Conor Sanchez

I’ve been in site for 76 days. Prince was still alive the last time I left Nueva Guinea. I turned a whole different age. The world was a younger planet and the fate of Jon Snow had not yet been realized.

Tomorrow I’m leaving and I’m prepared to encounter a world I hardly even recognize. What the world doesn’t know, however, is that I, too, have changed. Here’s how:

  • I used to think acclimating to the climate here would make me indifferent to air-conditioning. Instead, the reverse happened. A/C has become a luxurious amenity that I only get to enjoy when I pretend to have something to do at the Claro store on main street. I dream about it occasionally. I crave it especially around 2 pm when the sun is angriest. I’d go so far as to say that I would take an A/C over the latest iPhone. Yup, I said it.
  • I’m taking the LSAT next week, and I’m pretty sure a rave could be happening at the test center and I’d barely notice. That’s because Peace Corps provided me with nearly perfect study conditions. Roosters screaming outside, music blaring at the house next door, firecrackers randomly going off in the distance, and the man circling the neighborhood yelling, “I got popcorn and toilet paper! Popcorn and toilet paper!” are just a few of the things you hear as you try desperately to understand the reasoning error in a curator’s assertion that a “piece of artwork possesses aesthetic value if, and only if, there are people who see it and enjoy it.”
  • I can now trust my wife to handle any animal or insect crisis while she’s at home alone. Whenever I’m gone, for some reason that’s when all the creepy-crawly creatures of Nicaragua decide to come out. One day I got a call from her telling me a giant lizard called a basiliscus trapped itself in our roof, then dive-bombed from a hole in the ceiling to the floor, and ran to hide in our shower. Scorpions, roaches, and beetles the size of my hand have all stopped by to say hello while I’ve been away…under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be disappointed, but I kind of wanted to see that lizard.
  • I get really excited when the water returns. So excited that I usually sing this song when it’s back on.
  • I can hold the attention of 50 seventh graders for more than hour. Seriously, they actually listen and carry out some of the tasks I ask them to perform. Pretty sure this qualifies me to do anything.
  • Apparently, I thought the pink and blue shirt with an enlarged polo logo in the photo below would be an excellent choice to wear on my birthday. Yeah, we’ve been in site a little too long.

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Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter

By Conor Sanchez

June usually signifies the start of summer, getting outdoors, taking vacations, and enjoying warm weather. Here in Nicaragua, June is the start of winter, which means tons of rain followed by lots of mud and, most importantly, cooler temperatures.

Lucky for us, winter seems to have arrived a few weeks early and Michaela and I couldn’t be happier after experiencing some of the hottest months of our lives.

During most of March and April, the air was still, sticky, and sweltering. Without rain to wash out the skies, the air fills with a thick cloud of dust thrown up by all the cars and trucks rolling through town. We’d do most of our work in the morning, but by afternoon, you could do little more than sit inside your house with a fan blowing two inches from your face. Even then, you could feel the sweat running down the front of your shirt.

I tried everything to stay cool. Wetting my hair, taking a shower midday, putting my feet in a bucket of water. It got to the point where I actually looked forward to paying my electricity bill because it’s one of the few places with air-conditioning. The really surprising thing is just how tired it made me. A short walk to the store at 2 pm and I was spent for the next couple of hours; I returned home exhausted and tried to sit as still as possible so as not to overexert myself. Then, I’d go teach and get exhausted all over again.

Nights offered little reprieve, especially if the power went out (as it occasionally does). I’ll never forget the sound of our fan – perhaps our one saving grace in an otherwise scorching evening of sleep – turning off at around 11 pm only to be left with the sound of your own breath and of course the chicharras outside. We once tried to soak our bed sheet in water (a tip given to us by a foreign service officer in Managua from her time in India), but that just seemed to add to the humidity. Also, it just felt…weird. So, don’t do that if you’re super hot one night.

Likewise, I’ll never forget the relief felt when the power returned five hours later giving us at least a few hours of cooler temperatures and a deeper REM cycle. Until around 9 am, it was actually cool enough to think straight so I’d go over my lesson plan, write a bit, and study for the LSAT (which I’m taking in June). Then, I’d walk to class, arrive drenched in sweat, and get stared at for the next hour because for some insane reason, I’d be the only person sweating in the entire city.

But I don’t have to worry about that anymore. From here on out, we’ll get rain pretty much every day. This is a rainforest after all. Humidity will rise a bit and the afternoon can still cause you to break a sweat without even trying, but a fierce afternoon downpour can usually be expected to break the spell and bring the temperature down. After a while, the mold will build up in our closets and it’ll take our washed clothes a week to go from soaking wet to merely damp. My running shoes will see a lot more mud in their paths. And walking across town might take triple the amount of time if I forget my umbrella (which I often do) forcing me to take shelter under a tin awning outside some lady’s pulperia as the picture above exhibits.

But I’ll take that before I ever have to go through another dry season. Good riddance, summer! Hello, winter.

Grant Approved, Ready to Rock N’ Roll

World Connect, a non-profit based in New York City that support grassroots development abroad, has approved a grant to help fund the project I’ve been working on with my counterpart teacher, Freddy.

The project is to develop a new library at the school we teach at, which will include books in Spanish and English, computers, a printer, and trainings for teachers and students on how to use and care for the new resources. It’s in a small town east of Nueva Guinea, called La Esperanza, where I’ve been co-teaching for more than a year.

In that time I have noticed that one of the biggest challenges teachers face is the lack of knowledge and informational resources. Teachers have to travel 15 kilometers to reach the nearest computer or the nearest library. As a result, students lack the resources necessary to help them prepare to compete in a global economy that increasingly demands workers who can communicate effectively, speak English, and use a computer.

No construction will be necessary; the library will occupy a room currently used for storage. We’ll install computers that can be used by students to conduct research for classroom assignments, practice English, and gain 21st century technological skills that will prepare them for university. The equipment would also be used by teachers to print materials, develop curriculum, and improve evaluations.

This project will be carried out in three stages:

  1. First, students will help raise $375 within their community. That’ll happen this month. Simultaneously, we’ll clear out the room currently being used for storage and begin making renovations.
  2. Then, we’ll purchase the new equipment. Teachers will be trained in using and maintaining computers.
  3. Last, students and teachers will help set up the library by organizing books, alphabetizing them, and creating a check-out system. By September or October, we should be able to implement a series of activities that teach students how to use the library and to encourage students to read for pleasure.

All of this will take place over the next six months (the remainder of our service). I’m thrilled to be able to inform parents and students this week about the good news. I’m super grateful to World Connect for granting us the funds necessary to carry it out.

If you’ve never heard of World Connect, check them out. They exemplify what sustainable, grassroots development should look like.